Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Joe Steffan's "Honor Bound" -- 1992 book is one of the most important life stories on military gay ban

"Personal honor is an absolute -- you either have honor or you do not. No one can take it from you; it can only be surrendered willingly. And once it is surrendered, once it is compromised, it can never again be fully regained."

This powerful statement of principle appears on p. 145 as a description of the Honor Code at Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy. Many universities have a similar honor system, and when I started college in 1961 at William and Mary students signed on to a similar academic honor code. In 1996, I would write an essay (originally intended as a chapter in my first book) in which this principle would become “Morality’s Third Normal Form” (following a metaphor in software engineering). I can add right away that a more inclusive moral concept may be “Integrity”. Honor seems to imply zero tolerance of dishonest acts by one’s peers. Integrity is an even more inclusive term. Stephen Carter writes, “Integrity requires three steps: discovering what is right from wrong, acting on what you have discovered even at personal cost, and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong.” (] Stephen Carter, “The Insufficiency of Honesty,” Atlantic Monthly, February, 1996, pp 74-76.). A more general concept might be something like “karma” as I developed on my main blog (and in a review on this blog in April). There is a general meaning of earning what one has in life, and sometimes that involves responsiveness to others and their needs, beyond one’s own performance.

But, to come back to this book., Honor Bound: A Gay American Fights for the Right to Serve His Country. (Amazon: ISBN 0679416609). In 1992, I came in to Lambda Rising in Washington on a drizzly September Wednesday evening, to Joe Steffan’s signing of this book. I got there late and missed his reading, but got an autographed copy and met him in the signing line. He said he was working on defeating Oregon 's Proposition 9 (scary at the time, for example this; all of this was still more than ten years before Lawrence v. Texas.) The original was published by Villard, an imprint of Random House. Avon printed the paperback about two years later. It seems that the title changed slightly (“American” became “Naval Midshipman”: Honor Bound: A Gay Naval Midshipman Fights for the Right to Serve His Country. ISBN 0380715015 ). The original had a full front uniform view, whereas the paperback has only a headshot. I somehow mislaid the original in my move back to the DC area in 2003 and I picked up the paperback from an Amazon reseller. The internals of the two versions appear to be identical.

The book chronicles Mr. Steffan’s four years at the Naval Academy, where he would have graduated near the top of his class in 1987 had be not been “outed” by another midshipman who had failed. The details of the investigation and of his decision to answer honestly are moving. But so is the story of everything that leads up to it, such as Joe’s career in the Academy choir, his singing the National Anthem at an Army-Navy game, and his summer on a submarine cruise, where the forced intimacy created no issues at all. (He even talks about chess games.) He also discusses his experience in a chapter in Humphrey, Mary Ann (editor). My Country, My Right to Serve: Experiences of Gay Men and Women in the military, World War II to the Present. New York: Harper Collins, 1988 pp. 235-242, where there are some small “confessions” about “conduct” off-base. (See also: Steffan, Joseph C., Wolinsky, Marc, and Sherrill, Kenneth. Gays in the Military: Joseph Steffan versus the United States. Princeton University Press, 1993.) It seems likely that there has always been a small gay, very closeted subculture at the service academies that only a closed circle knew about. The overwhelming majority of actual disciplinary incidents in service academies (including the Naval Academy) over the years have been with heterosexual conduct among the midshipmen or cadets.

Steffan wound up litigating, losing in the circuit court but winning on a three-judge panel in the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Then the court reheard his case en banc (I went to the oral arguments in May 1994) where he lost.

The night I bought the book (remember, still Sept. 1992) I recall reading the first several chapters (there are ten) at a local restaurant on 17th Street over dinner, taking it home and finishing it that evening. I knew that the ban was going to be a big issue. Candidate Bill Clinton had already “promised” to try to end the ban, Keith Meinhold had already come out on ABC, the first president Bush was already failing in the polls, and Perot was moralizing about the American people. The following spring, in April 1993, while the debate (that would lead to “don’t ask don’t tell”) raged on, we would have the great March on Washington, with the Metro stations filled, and with The Washington Times carrying an overhead shot of the Mall the next Monday. I May, I would share the book with the then Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Washington DC, where I had gone to church as I grew up.

This book has great storytelling, and has the definite “beginning, middle and end” of a movie. This is the most compelling of all of the stories of gay people who have fought the ban, even though it occurred “pre don’t ask don’t tell”. It’s a no brainer that it could make a great movie, along the larger independent films that show at Landmark Theaters or AMC Select. It inspires some ambition: imagine mass scenes like his sing at the Army Navy game, or the 1993 March. The Touchstone film “Annapolis” (Justin Lin) simulates Annapolis but condescends to genre military film stereotypes. No, the filmmaking style demanded would be more in the line of “In the Valley of Elah.” I can imagine Casey Affleck playing Steffan, with Tommy Lee Jones and maybe even Brad Pitt himself as Academy cadre. If some outfits like Participant, 2929, The Weinstein Company, Lions Gate, or even the MGM Lion took a look at this, I think they could be very tempted. A film like this, well done and properly promoted, would stir a lot of controversy. Six months later “don’t ask don’t tell” might well be history.

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