Senate Hearings Mirror a Distorted Image : Gays in the military: The criterion should be conduct, just as in the business world.

Navy Lt. (j.g.) Tracy W. J. Thorne is on active duty at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. He is scheduled to testify Monday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If you've ever seen yourself in a fun-house mirror, you may understand what I and millions of other gay and lesbian Americans are going through as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and the rest of Washington debate President Clinton's proposal to end the ban on gays in the military.

For the past 11 months, my life has been centered on the battle to end that discrimination. Simply because I admitted that I am gay, I am on the verge of being robbed of my naval career and the dream of serving my country.

As I watch the Senate hearings and the debate, I see a distorted image of gays in the military--one that has no relationship to the hundreds of thousands of responsible and patriotic gays who have served their country. And I see this image distracting us from what the President is saying is the real issue: that people should be judged by their conduct and job performance, not their natural-born orientation.

What is most troubling is that the religious right has tried to distort the debate by linking homosexuality with everything from pedophilia to a maniacal lack of sexual self-control. They paint gays as sexual predators whose only desire is to lure their heterosexual buddies into sordid affairs.

The truth is we all work around someone who may be attracted to us. In the U.S. armed forces, men and women have worked side by side for years. Foreign militaries have successfully integrated gays and straights. Sexual attraction is present in any workplace, be it the corner drugstore or the sands of Somalia. It is our self-control of that attraction that separates us from animals. To suppose that homosexuals lack self-control is a myth based only in fear and ignorance.

Hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians have served in our armed forces with no record of misconduct. Ironically, recent cases of improprieties and sexual harassment demonstrate that heterosexuals are the ones having problems with misconduct.

Some military leaders call lifting the ban radical social engineering at the expense of national security. But nationwide, gays and straights work side by side, openly, in what is perhaps the closest civilian parallel to the military: fire and police departments. Why are there no problems? Because those organizations judge people by their conduct.

Nunn, who fails to recognize any difference between conduct and orientation, was incensed that the Pentagon was not first asked to study the issue. But military leaders already have. Three times, the Department of Defense commissioned reports to provide rationale for the policy, and three times their own reports called for change. As one of those reports put it: "The military cannot indefinitely isolate itself from the changes occurring in the wider society of which it is an integral part."

Australia recognizes this. There, discrimination against military gays and lesbians ended without any of the predicted loss of order, discipline and morale. Before changing the policy, the Australian Defense Forces instituted strict codes of conduct for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Rather than invading privacy, the regulations now protect all from sexual harassment.

Since a solid majority of our allies have rejected discrimination against gays, the hearings have great potential to shed light on the issue of conduct. The evidence will show that the true ramifications of lifting the ban will be, in the words of one high-ranking foreign officer, "no big deal."

Now that my release from active duty is imminent, I report to work daily not to fly the jets I was trained in, but to work a Xerox copier for the Navy safety office. As I press that little green copy button, I wonder why it is so easy for the military to cast away the $2 million used in training me to fly. Why am I now a pariah for simply telling the truth?

When I enlisted, I swore "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Little did I know the most powerful enemy I would face was the prejudice and bigotry of my own armed forces.

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