Return to Duty

updated 11/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

DURING HIS 12 YEARS IN THE NAVY, PETTY Officer Keith Meinhold didn't merely compile an unblemished record. He was outstanding. He regularly received glowing performance reports, and in 1990 he was put in charge of training about 150 students a year in airborne sonar techniques. One superior described him as "a sterling example of the Navy at its best."

Then last May, Meinhold, 30, announced on national TV that he was gay—and instantly found himself demoted from paragon to pariah. Drummed out of the service for violating the military's ban on homosexuality, he fought for reinstatement. Earlier this month a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the Navy to take him back, pending the outcome of a civil suit. When Meinhold showed up at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, Calif., to resume his duties on Nov. 12, he became the first openly gay person ever allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces. In the process, he also became the human symbol of the battle brewing over President-elect Bill Clinton's promise to permit gays in the military. "A lot of people tell me this was a courageous thing to do," says Meinhold. "But the reality is I'm ready to put my life on the line to defend this country. This pales in comparison."

Actually, for Meinhold the controversy has proved to be a cathartic release from long years of denial and duplicity. He was raised in Stuart, Fla., where his father ran a car dealership and his mother was an interior decorator. ("I've always said I got my homosexuality from her," jokes Meinhold.) His parents divorced when he was 16, and not long afterward Meinhold decided to enlist in the Navy. About seven years ago he began to come to terms with the fact that he is gay. On his days off, Meinhold started driving up to San Francisco to visit gay bars. "I went to extraordinary, paranoid measures not to be discovered," he says.

Gradually he began to recognize other Navy personnel from his base in the bars. The sense that he was not alone was comforting, but it also kindled his anger at the military. Each year some 1,400 people are dismissed from the armed forces for homosexuality. "I got so frustrated that such a good organization could virtually deny its members their civil and human rights," he says. "I couldn't continue to let that happen."

As an act of defiance, Meinhold started going to the bars in uniform. Earlier this year he called Karen Stupski of the Human Rights Campaign Fund in Washington, D.C., who asked him if he would be willing to go on television with his story. "I told her to give me a few days to think about it," he recalls. "But I knew immediately what I was going to do." On May 19 he went on ABC's World News Tonight. Within days he was pulled from his instructor's post and assigned a make-work task of programming a computer. After his forced but honorable discharge on July 1, he filed suit in federal court seeking reinstatement, which he won on Nov. 6. But officials still refused to budge. Only after District Judge Terry J. Halter Jr. threatened to hold the Navy in contempt was Meinhold allowed to resume his old instructor's job.

Initially Meinhold was buoyed by the largely positive reaction of many officers and enlisted men, both gay and straight, as well as his family. "I'm so proud of him I can't stand it," says his mother, Maggie Green. "I just love the fact that he has such strong morals and feelings toward helping others." But in recent days, Meinhold has been told of threats against him. He realizes that even with Clinton's endorsement, the campaign to allow gays equal access to the military will not be won easily. But he, for one, is willing to keep challenging the top brass. "I don't know if they understood my resolve," he says. "I still don't know if they understand."

BILL HEWITT
JOHNNY DODD in San Francisco

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