Navy officer from Salisbury faces dismissal for disclosing he's gay

July 06, 1994|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Taunted for months by shipmates who suspected he was gay, Navy Lt. Richard "Dirk" Selland nervously approached his captain in January 1993, believing that the chance to end the harassment was worth the price of revealing his homosexuality.

"If it weren't for the teasing, I don't think I would have raised it," said the 25-year-old Salisbury native. "Enough was enough."

The lieutenant disclosed that he was homosexual the day after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president, having promised to lift the ban on gays in the military.

Lieutenant Selland said his decision to reveal his sexual orientation was based in part on Mr. Clinton's campaign pledge.

But according to Lieutenant Selland, the captain told him to pack his things -- and lent him a gym bag so he could leave immediately.

"I was removed from the sub the way the Colts were from Baltimore," the lieutenant said. "Quietly, in the middle of the night."

Now the Navy is seeking Lieutenant Selland's dismissal under the new "Don't ask, Don't tell, Don't pursue" policy, with hearings set to begin next Wednesday before a three-member naval board of inquiry.

Under the policy, superiors must not ask about a person's sexual orientation or investigate unsubstantiated claims that they may be gay.

But gay service members will be discharged if they declare their homosexuality or engage in homosexual conduct.

The administration adopted "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy, after Mr. Clinton retreated from his pledge to lift the ban completely.

Supporters of the new policy said it would protect gay service members who keep their sexual orientation private.

Not so, critics say. Lieutenant Selland's case will be among the first to challenge the new regulations as unconstitutional if his lawyers go ahead with a lawsuit later this summer.

But Lieutenant Selland's supporters also argue that his story illustrates the practical flaws in the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

What happened to the lieutenant, they say, shows that even well-regarded members of the service who keep their sexuality private can be harassed into disclosing they are gay -- and then expelled.

"Don't ask, Don't tell is unworkable and unenforceable," said Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a private group here that provides legal help to gays in the military. "You have to guard every word and action you take. It's just the old ban in new clothing."

The Navy, for its part, argues that when Lieutenant Selland told his captain that he was gay, he in effect declared his homosexuality, violating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"We're not picking on individuals," said Lt. Dave Waterman, a spokesman for the Navy Bureau of Personnel. "This is current policy as well as current law, from the president on down, and we're merely carrying out policy as directed by our commander-in-chief, the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy."

Lt. Col. Doug Hart, a spokesman for the Defense Department, also defended the new policy and pointed to a slower pace of dismissals for homosexuality.

According to Colonel Hart, 279 service members have been dismissed from the military on account of homosexuality in the first seven months of fiscal 1994, compared with 682 for all of fiscal year 1993 and 708 for fiscal 1992.

Rejecting assertions by Mr. Osburn and others that the military is still trying to root out gays, Colonel Hart said that "if we were ferreting out homosexuals, don't you think the numbers would be up?

"An individual who keeps his sexual orientation to himself could continue to serve in the military without any problem," Colonel Hart said. The Pentagon, he said, does not tolerate any form of harassment, and military personnel attend regular training classes on "how to treat one another in a respectful manner."

Although Colonel Hart said he could not discuss Lieutenant Selland's case, he said that "if a person is being harassed, an individual can go to a commander to have that stopped without making any statements."

But Lieutenant Selland said he felt that when he approached the captain to complain about the harassment, the captain was likely to press him on whether he was gay.

Hank Hockeimer Jr., the lieutenant's lawyer, argues that the lieutenant's case shows why the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is unworkable.

"The policy states that homosexual orientation itself isn't a bar to military service," said Mr. Hockeimer. "But any statement concerning one's sexual orientation, no matter to whom it is directed or how or why it's made, violates the policy. It doesn't make any sense."

Sandra Carson Stanley, an associate professor of sociology at Towson State University and editor of a forthcoming book on gays in the military, agrees that the policy is "impractical."

Under the policy, she said, a high-ranking officer has wide discretion to decide when a service member has declared his or her homosexuality and should be investigated.

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