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Ex-Midshipman, Forced Out of Academy Because He’s Homosexual, Sues to Return

Times Staff Writer

Joseph C. Steffan was less than two months shy of graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987 after an exemplary career there when he learned that he was under investigation for being a homosexual.

When confronted with the charge by his superiors at the academy, Steffan acknowledged that he was gay but said that he had not engaged in homosexual activity at Annapolis. He was immediately deemed unfit for Navy service and forced to resign from the academy.

Navy rules forbid gay men and women to serve in any capacity because the Navy believes that homosexuality undermines military discipline, threatens morale and damages the Navy’s public image.

On Thursday, Steffan filed suit in federal court in Washington seeking reinstatement at Annapolis and challenging the constitutionality of the Navy’s explicit policy of discrimination against gays.

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“My goal is to get my diploma and get the regulation against homosexuality declared illegal so I can pursue my commission,” Steffan said in an interview Thursday. “That’s my goal, and anything short of that I would be dissatisfied with.”

He said that he never expected to take on the Defense Department as a symbol of the gay rights movement but that he has concluded over the last year that it is the only way to salvage his reputation and save others from suffering as he has.

“I guess I consider myself a crusader,” Steffan said.

The case is the first of its kind involving the service academies, the elite educational institutions that supply the military with many top officers. Previous cases against the military have chipped away at anti-homosexual policies but have not succeeded in tearing down the armed forces’ barriers against service by acknowledged gays and lesbians.

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Jay Fromkin, a Naval Academy spokesman, said that the school has no policy of its own regarding homosexuals but that it follows standard Navy policy, which states flatly that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. Fromkin said that the mere admission of homosexuality is sufficient basis for discharge and that no proof of homosexual behavior is required.

He said that the Navy would have no further comment on the Steffan case, both to protect the former midshipman’s privacy and because the matter is before the courts.

“I feel the military is completely unjustified in its discrimination against homosexuality,” Steffan said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “At any one time, there are 300 to 400 homosexual midshipmen at the Naval Academy. The truth is, if they tried to break down the prejudice, they wouldn’t have to discharge 6,000 people a year” from the military for alleged homosexuality.

Steffan’s case is being supported by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit gay rights advocacy group.

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Steffan, now 24, was a high school sports star and student leader in the small town of Warren, Minn. He won eight varsity letters, served as student body president and was graduated second in his class.

He was admitted to the Naval Academy--his lifetime goal--and hoped to eventually command a nuclear submarine.

He entered Annapolis in 1983 and quickly won top honors. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he spent 60 days on a ballistic missile submarine in the North Atlantic, earning a commendation for his performance.

By his senior year at the academy, he was a battalion commander with authority over 800 of the academy’s 4,000 midshipmen, primary soloist in the glee club and among the top 10% of his class academically.

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“Suddenly, less than two months before I was to graduate, I received word that I was under investigation by the NIS (Naval Investigative Service) for alleged homosexuality,” Steffan said. “I had been informed by the chief of chaplains that I would not be allowed to graduate.”

Steffan said that he had confided his homosexuality to a friend, who told another midshipman, who told a third. Eventually, his private admission was reported to the superintendent of the Naval Academy, who took action immediately.

Steffan was ordered to report to the commandant of midshipmen, who asked him if he were homosexual. “I admitted I was gay but there were no allegations of homosexual conduct,” Steffan said Thursday.

Two review boards met to study Steffan’s case. Although his academy record was spotless, “none of that was relevant when they heard that I’d said I was gay,” Steffan said.

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His admission of homosexuality was enough to determine that he had “insufficient aptitude” to serve as a naval officer and would not be allowed to graduate from Annapolis or receive a commission as a Navy ensign. Steffan was told that he could resign from the academy or await dishonorable dismissal.

“It was pretty devastating for me personally,” Steffan said. “My parents had no idea I was gay. Needless to say, my family, coming from a town of 2,000 people, was pretty upset.” His father was unable to speak with him over the phone for days after his admission, Steffan said, although both parents have now come to accept his homosexuality.

Steffan now lives in Fargo, N. D., where he works at a small computer software company and is completing his undergraduate studies. Many of his Naval Academy credits--including nuclear ship propulsion and celestial navigation--did not transfer to the civilian college he now attends, Steffan said.


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