'Don't ask, don't tell' on trial in Seattle federal court Navy officer won't promise to refrain from gay sex

January 19, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SEATTLE -- Lt. Richard Watson wants to command a nuclear submarine. But before the 15-year Navy veteran with a stellar record can try to do that, the Navy says, he must promise not to engage in sex with other men.

Lieutenant Watson refuses to make that promise.

Today, a federal judge in Seattle will be asked to settle the standoff and determine whether the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which governs the role of gay men and lesbians in the U.S. armed forces, is constitutional.

The specific question for U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly is whether Lieutenant Watson can be discharged from the Navy for declaring his homosexuality and refusing to promise that he won't engage in homosexual acts.

Lieutenant Watson, who speaks about his career and lawsuit with calm confidence, is widely considered to be an effective, professional officer.

"He is precisely the type of officer you want standing next to you in the heat of wartime battle," Lt. Cmdr. Scott Wolfe, who roomed with Lieutenant Watson aboard a nuclear submarine, said in an affidavit.

But Lieutenant Watson's promising military career stalled in October 1994, when the 33-year-old, then stationed in Oregon, declared his homosexuality in a letter to a superior officer.

Lieutenant Watson says he simply wanted to tell the truth and didn't want to be at risk of blackmail in a high-stress command situation.

"Secrecy is not the order of the day," he said of the Navy. "You've got to trust each other emphatically."

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- molded during a heated social and political debate in the early days of the Clinton presidency -- allows gays to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation private.

Under the terms of the policy, once Lieutenant Watson made his statement of homosexuality he was required to "rebut the presumption" that the statement means he engages in homosexual acts.

The government has long maintained that the discharge of known homosexuals is necessary to maintain unit cohesion and troop morale.

In briefs filed in Lieutenant Watson's case, government attorneys have argued that military policy should be left largely to the discretion of Congress. The policy, government attorneys say, does not violate service members' constitutional rights.

In August, Judge Zilly -- who issued the 1994 order reinstating Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer to the Washington National Guard -- issued a preliminary order barring the Navy from discharging Lieutenant Watson until he had time to consider the case.

In issuing the preliminary injunction order, Judge Zilly said the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was based on prejudice.

Judge Zilly has not indicated when he will issue a decision. And either side is likely to appeal an unfavorable decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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