Like any other policy, the military's ban on homosexuals sometimes is more elastic in practice than in principle. Consider the very different experiences of Perry J. Watkins and Joseph C. Steffan.
Watkins, then 18, was drafted into the Army in 1967, when the armed forces were expanding rapidly because of the Vietnam War. At his pre-induction physical, he checked “yes” on a form that asked whether he had homosexual tendencies. Nonetheless, he was adjudged qualified to serve. Investigations of Watkins' homosexual conduct in 1968 and 1972 were dropped for lack of evidence, even though he signed an affidavit stating that he had been a homosexual since age 13 and had engaged in sodomy with two other servicemen, a crime under military law. Despite this admission, Watkins was accepted for re-enlistment in 1971, 1974 and 1979.
Watkins' luck changed when the Army adopted a regulation in 1981 mandating the dismissal of all homosexuals, regardless of merit. Discharge proceedings were soon brought against him. Although he won a court challenge to those proceedings, he was forced out of the service with an honorable discharge when his enlistment contract expired in 1984.
Refusing to accept defeat, Watkins mounted a legal battle for reinstatement by the Army. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in his favor in 1989, citing his multiple re-enlistments, the fact he had told his superiors of his homosexuality several times during his career and his “exceptionally outstanding military record.” The U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand in 1990. Watkins was reinstated the following year, immediately retiring with a promotion to sergeant first class, full pension benefits and back pay of $135,000.
Unlike Watkins, Joseph Steffan deliberately chose a military career. An outstanding scholar and athlete in high school, he was granted early admission as an “ideal candidate” to the Naval Academy -- the only college to which he had applied.
In filling out an academy security form, Steffan checked the “no” box next to a question asking if he was homosexual. He did so with a clear conscience, he said in a book published last year. Homosexuality “was a topic I had rarely heard mentioned when I was growing up, and then only in disgust. Homosexuals all talked with a lisp and swung their hips when they walked, trying to act womanlike, and I hated them.... I didn't want to be a woman -- I was a man and I liked being a man.”#
More honors came Steffan's way during his four years at Annapolis. He maintained straight A's in academic performance and in conduct, was twice chosen to sing the national anthem at the Army-Navy football game and served as a battalion commander in his senior year.
All the while, though, Steffan was coming to realize that he was sexually attracted to men. He kept his secret to himself until the autumn of his final year, when he told two plebes he was gay. By the following spring, the Naval Investigative Service was looking into the matter. Finally confronted by the commandant of the academy, Steffan acknowledged he was homosexual. He resigned from the academy (his only other option was being discharged) just weeks before his class graduated.
Upon reflection, Steffan withdrew his resignation and filed suit in federal court in December 1988 challenging the Navy's authority to oust him. In a decision handed down three years later, Judge Oliver Gasch of U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled in the Navy's favor. The military's ban on homosexuals, Gasch declared, is justified as a way of combating the spread of AIDS through its ranks. Joseph C. Steffan, Honor Bound: A Gay American Fights for the Right to Serve His Country (1992).