(2/4/93) New York Times...

On the Front Lines with Joseph Steffan


By Jeffrey Schmalz

He is every mother's dream for her daughter: an ex-midshipman, handsome as can be, with a principled intelligence and a diffident way. But there is a hitch: he's gay. And therein lies the story of Joseph Steffan, his battle with himself and his battle with the Navy.

These are hectic days for the 28-year-old Mr. Steffan. As the fight over homosexuals and the military rages on, he is in demand. Everyone, it seems, wants to hear how he was kicked out of Annapolis for being gay just a week before graduation in 1987. One minute it's the networks; the next, the news weeklies, all asking about his lawsuit to be reinstated in the Navy. (It was dismissed in late 1991 in Federal District Court in Washington and is being appealed.) All the while, he tours the country, speaking at colleges about gay men and lesbians in the military, and promoting his book "Honor Bound" (Villard), now in its second printing.

In two recent conversations in Greenwich Village -- on in that granddaddy of New York gay bars, Julius', and the other in a cafe -- the former Navy man, now law student, seemed to vacillate. He was at times the conservative Minnesota son of Scandinavian stock, at other times the fighter for gay rights.

So great is the burden he carries of being a symbol and so practiced is he at telling his story that he can seem programmed, more like a walking news release than a man who had his life torn apart. Because he is afraid of undercutting his lawsuit against the Government, he said, he portrays himself as purer than pure, refusing even to answer whether he has a boyfriend. His replies are careful, a mix of natural Midwestern reserve and lobbyist's savvy. He is, in short, the perfect symbol for this fight, the understated, well-scrubbed boy next door. No one will ever label Joe Steffan a screaming queen.

Yet, surely, even he must lighten up at times. Asked if he ever let his hair down and camped it up a bit, he broke out laughing. "On occasion," he replied, with a look that really said, "Absolutely not."

"If you think I'm straight now," he added, "you should have seen me at the Academy."

Still, a wry humor shone through. He was outraged at the military's stereotyped portrayal of homosexuals as sexual predators waiting to pounce in barracks and showers. He pointed out that beginning with elementary school, gay men and lesbians showered with their classmates, learning when it was O.K. to feel sexual and when it was not. Then he let go with a very un-Steffan-like line:

"Heterosexual men," he said, "have an annoying habit of overestimating their own attractiveness."

For generations, to be gay was to have no role models, save for the likes of Liberace, and even he denied his homosexuality. Now, more gay men and lesbians have been going public, but few of them as heroically as those in the military. They could simply have kept quiet. Instead, they chose to be honest.

At Julius', there were flashes of recognition from the crowd: a shake of the hand, a pat on the back. One man sat nearby staring, and at first it wasn't clear if he was watching or cruising. Then he, too, came over.

"We're with you," he said.

Mr. Steffan took it in stride. But he admitted that there were times when the burden was too great. "Fairly often, actually," he said, adding: "There's this constant sort of tension: "Am I too devoted to this issue? Should I just be getting on with my life?' But I'm drawn back because I realize how much it will mean when this policy changes."

But will it change? President Clinton, in the face of fierce Congressional and military opposition, delayed for at least six months his plan to end the ban on homosexuals in the armed services. Polls show the country about evenly split on the issue, but the plan's opponents, who argue that the presence of homosexuals would be disruptive, destroying cohesion in the ranks, are dominating the coverage.

"I'm discouraged," Mr. Steffan said. "In terms of the tenor of the debate, we've lost ground. I've come to appreciate the power of hatred. We're being portrayed as inherently immoral disease carriers unable to control their sexuality. I think people realize it's wrong to kick gay people out of the military. But they have been made afraid."

In his lawsuit, Mr. Steffan is seeking reinstatement into the Navy as an officer. Despite the Clinton delay, he still holds out hope, putting his chances at 50-50.

"I think what's going on in the military," he said, "is denial and perpetuating the myth that the military is the last bastion of white male heterosexuality. It's the same kind of attitude that causes events like the Tailhook incident. This male arrogant elitism that the military is an institution for a few, for one small segment of our society."

Those are tough words from someone who was as by-the-book Navy as they come, ranking in the top 10 of his Annapolis class. But then, his whole life has flipped upside down. Once a Republican, he is now staunchly Democratic. A former Roman Catholic choir boy, he now eschews religion. Once having thought of himself as straight, he rattles off a list of the gay bars he has visited. A deep-in-his-soul Midwesterner, he has moved to Hartford, where he studies law at the University of Connecticut. A onetime "Yes, sir!" military man, he led a recent successful fight to ban military recruiters at the law school.

"The change has been phenomenal," said Marc Wolinsky, who helps lead the legal team handling Mr. Steffan's case. "He started out totally bewildered. He didn't even have a suit. The next thing you know, he's on 'Nightline.'"

In his book, published in September, and in the interviews, Mr. Steffan laid out that transformation, starting off with a boy who disappointed his father because he wasn't good at sports but learned to be a champion runner. His life could be summed up in one word: overachievement.

He knew he wasn't particularly attracted to girls sexually but didn't conclude he was gay until his second year at Annapolis. He was horrified. The closest he admits to approaching a sexual encounter at the Academy was when a fellow midshipman brushed his leg up against his, although he does admit being attracted to some of his classmates.

For the most part, he repressed his homosexuality, joining in with the other midshipmen in making anti-gay jokes, watching as straight sexual encounters were ignored or as only the female cadet was punished. Straight male cadets celebrated conquests in their rooms by affixing banana stickers to their doors.

But more and more, Mr. Steffan realized he was gay and felt the need to tell someone, confiding in two friends. Word leaked out, though exactly how is not clear. He was asked officially, "Are you a homosexual?" and he could continue the sham no more. He was kicked out days before commissioning and graduation.

When all was known, he said, fellow midshipmen treated him with respect. One even apologized for any offensive comments he might have made about homosexuality.

But back home in Warren, Minn. (population 1,800), his parents were stunned. There was even talk of finding a way to change Mr. Steffan's sexual orientation. But in the end, they came around, at first to his homosexuality and then, more reluctantly, to his gay activism. His mother now sends him clippings on gay issues.

"You're not really out until you come out to our family," he said, recounting that at first, he was uncomfortable traveling in gay circles. "I had the same prejudices as everybody else."

At first, he wanted to forget what had happened, running away to the University of North Dakota to get his degree. But he couldn't forget; he returned East to file his lawsuit in December 1988, finding a job in New York City. He left for Connecticut to write his book in a secluded cabin and then applied to law school. He lives on his book royalties and speaking fees.

The account of his life duly told, the Minnesota boy was asked a very New York question: Did a therapist help him adjust to his new life?

"It's not the Midwestern or Scandinavian thing to do," he said, adding: "You should meet more Midwesterners. We're all like this."

Then he talked about his singing, which is his form of therapy. A tenor with a classically trained voice, he twice sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Army-Navy games.

When the girl he had taken to the high-school prom heard about his expulsion from Annapolis, she asked him to sing at her wedding, and he did: "Ave Maria." He sings occasionally now with a group in Rochester.

But happy as he was talking about singing. comfortable and upbeat as he seemed, his mood shifted, and this man who was so controlled suddenly opened up, pouring it out.

"I spent so much of my life ignoring my emotion, especially at Annapolis," said Mr. Steffan, who still visits the Academy from time to time. "It's been five years since I got kicked out. I never go through a day without thinking about it. It seems sad, but it's not really. It's not like I cry myself to sleep every night."

But he did some nights?

"Oh, yeah. Yes. Yes," he said. "I'll never forget it. I'll never forget what it felt like. Alone. But it felt so good to finally be free, to finally come out. Heterosexuals don't understand the price we pay for being in the closet. I look at all my friends. I look at how I'm closer to my family. What a wonderful thing it is to come out."