Military Secrets

updated 01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/2004 01:00AM

Ten years ago President Clinton instituted the controversial Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy for gays in the military, an attempt to eliminate their fear of being kicked out as long as they stayed silent about their sexuality. "It's the worst system possible except for any other," says Northwestern University sociology professor Charles Moskos, who proposed the policy to the Administration. "The idea is of personal privacy." Last month, however, a retired admiral and two retired Army generals came out of the closet to denounce the policy as contrary to the military's core values and an affront to the dignity of homosexuals. "It assumes there are people in the military whose hatred toward gays is so intense they can't function properly in front of them," says Rear Adm. Alan M. Steinman, who served for 25 years, four as the Coast Guard's director of health and safety. "That means the military is willing to endure a severe constraint on the freedom of speech of gay men and women simply to accommodate a few hateful people in the ranks." Steinman and Brig. Gens. Keith H. Kerr (31 years of service) and Virgil A. Richard (32 years) are the highest-ranking military officers ever to acknowledge being gay. What follows are the personal stories they could not tell for so many years.

BRIG. GEN. VIRGIL A. RICHARD

I was 35 when I realized I was gay. Everything I'd felt from the time I was in grade school suddenly started to make sense. At the time, in the early '70s, I was a major; I was also married with three sons. My wife and I had a good relationship, but it was more platonic at that point. In any case, to save my career and my family, I decided not to act on my feelings. I made up my mind to behave like a straight man until I retired. That was the price I was going to pay. The secret took an emotional toll—I often had trouble sleeping at night. There were times I wanted to discuss my sexuality with someone in the military, but at that time even chaplains and psychologists would have felt obligated to report it. Sometimes when I'd go out to a bar with fellow officers, someone would tell jokes about "fags" or "queers." After the mid-'70s, I began internalizing and had to bite my tongue. I just knew that I was attracted to men and had been for a long time. But I couldn't pursue that. Guys see good-lookin' women walk by, and they google and stare. I'd see an attractive man, and I would have to block it out.

When I retired, in 1991, it was a freeing experience. I knew I needed to get a divorce—I wasn't happy, because I couldn't be who I was. At first my wife was angry, and she had a right to be. I had deceived her for so long. But soon we were on good terms, and we still are.

By coming forward, we [Richard, Steinman and Kerr] hope there will be others who'll come out and do the same thing—there are more than three gay admirals and generals who are now retired. And hopefully we can make life better for those who want to serve in the future. The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy compromises your integrity. If you're asked, it's either "I lose my career" or "I lie." It's made life miserable for too many people. But I can't knock the Army—it was very good to me. And I'm proud of my career. I think I handled it with honor—the medals in the case [including the Distinguished Service medal, the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit] are proof of that. I'm happy with what I've done, and I'm happy with who I am.

After his retirement, Richard, 66, served as a municipal judge near Fort Hood, Texas. At a 1996 Christmas party, he met his partner, housing administrator David Potter, 43, with whom he now lives in Austin.

BRIG. GEN. KEITH H. KERR

I was in my 30s before I accepted my sexuality. I remember my friends always talked about how attractive girls were, and I nodded and went along. Before I realized I was gay, I thought I was going to marry and have children. I still believed one day it was just suddenly going to burst on me and I was going to be attracted to women. It never happened.

Alvin was my one love, and I fell for him instantly. I was on active duty at the time in Southern California and had come home for the weekend. It was summer, and I met him in a disco. I took his number. He thought at the time, "This guy would never call me." But I did. He was into popular music and dancing and liked to smoke a little dope. I was much too rigid to do any of that. But we had a wonderful, rich life together until his death three years ago. We backpacked on the John Muir Trail. We skied in Aspen. We went to England on the QE2.

To my family, I tried to keep up the pretense that I was an unattached bachelor. Once I was talking to a close friend, and I said, "You know, I'm wondering if I should tell my parents I'm gay." And my friend said, "You don't need to tell them. They've met Alvin." And they fell in love with him. A few people from the military knew him and really enjoyed him. I think most people I served with over a long period came to the conclusion I was gay, not because of what I did, but because of what I didn't do—go out chasing women with them, marry, have children.

Prior to 1993 and Don't Ask, Don't Tell, when the regulation against gays was much more strict, I saw people thrown out of the Army, families humiliated, careers ruined. I thought if I could keep my personal life to myself I could finish the 20-year reserve commission and qualify for a full pension. I was able to do that. But toward the end of my career I began having a recurrent dream. An investigator would tell me he knew I was gay and he was going to expose me. I'd challenge him and say, "You have no proof." Then I would wake up and realize, "Oh, this is just a nightmare." Everything would be fine—until another night.

Kerr, 71, who retired in 1995, now lives in Santa Rosa, Calif.

REAR ADM. ALAN M. STEINMAN

There was no one day when I woke up and said, "Oh, I must be gay." But over time, I think it became obvious to me. Of course, I couldn't reveal it. Two parts of the uniform code of military justice are germane to this. One prohibits homosexual activity, the other prohibits sodomy, defined as anything other than vaginal intercourse between a male and female—so it even applies to a guy and his wife having oral sex. But it wasn't a problem for me because I wasn't doing either. It was just all one long being in the closet. That was the biggest cost. I couldn't share my life with a loved one.

I didn't come out until 2000. I was on a trip with my dad, a retired chemist, and we were in Hong Kong at the famous dim sum restaurant above city hall. He wasn't surprised. He and my mom had suspected it for a long time. I've gotten nothing but positive feedback from other people, who say, "Oh, we knew you were gay and you wouldn't admit it." So here I am in a senior leadership position where people are saying, "Who cares?"

All people on active duty, even rednecks, know there are gay people serving alongside them. You have a communal shower with 20 or 30 guys in there, chances are one or two of them are gay. There are gays in the special forces. I knew some in Green Berets and Navy SEALS. There are soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who are out to their unit, and it doesn't impair their combat effectiveness. The unit is okay with it.

I'm not angry at the military, because I loved my time there. But I do look at it as tragic. Why should I have to stay in the closet? Why should other people have to do that to themselves in order to serve their country?

Steinman, 58, who retired in 1997, now lives near Tacoma, Wash., and does consulting work in the area of environmental and occupational medicine.

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