JOSEPH STEFFAN is an American lawyer and gay activist born on this date. He was expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1987 shortly before graduation after disclosing his homosexuality. He sued the U.S. Department of Defense, claiming that his oral avowal of homosexuality could not be construed as an indication that he ever had or intended to engage in sexual relations with another man. He lost a protracted court battle for reinstatement in 1994.
In his First Class (senior) year at the Naval Academy he was promoted to a battalion commander, placing him in command of one-sixth of the academy’s 4,500 midshipmen and among the top ten highest-ranking midshipmen in the academy. He twice sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Army–Navy games. After he told another midshipman and a chaplain that he was gay, the academy conducted an investigation and Steffan told a disciplinary board that he was gay. The board then changed his performance evaluation from “A” to “F” and recommended that he be discharged. He was expelled from the academy six weeks before graduation. He never admitted, nor was he was accused of, engaging in sex with another man. In a letter to the New York Times dated August 23, 1988, he wrote: “the real problem is not homosexuality, but rather, the military’s open and officially supported prejudice against homosexuals who have the desire and capability to serve their country.”
On December 29, 1988, Steffan, represented by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed suit in United States District Court for the District of Columbia asking it to order the Department of Defense to reinstate him. He claimed his equal protection and due process rights had been violated. At the time, he was working in Fargo, North Dakota, for a computer software company.
When his deposition was taken, Steffan refused to respond to questions about whether he had ever “engaged in homosexual acts” as defined by the Navy: “Bodily contact actively undertaken or passively permitted between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires.” He also refused to discuss other aspects of his behavior, including why he had himself tested several times for HIV. Based on that refusal, U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch dismissed the suit on November 15, 1989.
A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed Gasch on December 7, 1990. Its decision said: “That [Steffen] seeks reinstatement as relief for an allegedly invalid separation does not put into issue the question whether he engaged in potentially disqualifying conduct unless such conduct was a basis for his separation.”
During a hearing in March 1991, Gasch used the term “homo” several times to refer to Steffan or to homosexuals generally. Steffan’s attorneys asked Gasch to disqualify himself based on the prejudice evidenced by his language. In April, Gasch refused to disqualify himself.
In December 1991, Gasch ruled in favor of the Department of Defense in the case of Steffan v. Cheney. His decision held that the government’s exclusion of homosexuals from the Armed Forces “is rational in that it is directed, in part, at preventing those who are at the greatest risk of dying of AIDS from serving. This is understandable in light of the overall mission of defending the nation. The interest we as a Nation have in a healthy military cannot be underestimated.” Neither party to the case had mentioned AIDS in its briefs. At the time, the U.S. military denied enlistment to applicants who tested positive for HIV and gave medical discharges to servicemembers who became infected with HIV only when they could no longer perform their assigned duties. According to the New York Times, “As of September, 1,888 members of the military who had tested positive for the virus were still on duty.” Gasch also found the policy reflected “The quite rational assumption in the Navy … that with no one present who has a homosexual orientation, men and women alike can undress, sleep, bathe and use the bathroom without fear or embarrassment that they are being viewed as sexual objects.” Heaven forbid.
In 2010, two federal courts ruled the ban on openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual service personnel unconstitutional, and on July 6, 2011, a federal appeals court suspended the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. In December 2010, the House and Senate passed and President Barack Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, and under its provisions, restrictions on service by gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel ended as of September 20, 2011.
According to a RAND Corporation report, a 2015 survey of over 16,000 service members found that 5.8% of the respondents identified as being lesbian, gay or bisexual. When separated by gender, 1.9% of males identified as gay and 2.0% as bisexual, while 7.0% of females identified as lesbian and 9.1% as bisexual.
Joseph Steffan is an attorney in New York City.