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"He's still a beginner at this," remarks Alan Stephens, who handles public relations for a national lobbying group called Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America. Stephens was a captain in the Army, and he counseled Paniccia before the sergeant's TV appearance and set up some press conferences after the show. But even after his network debut, Paniccia has found it difficult to talk, especially in public. So now, on a rainy night in July, Paniccia is driving through a seedy section of Tucson near the base, looking for a not-too-seedy restaurant. His car is a 77 Toyota Celica with an olive-drab Earl Scheib paint job and a bad front end. Every time he accelerates, the car rattles and bounces and hammers like Chuck Yeager's airplane approaching the sound barrier.
He is talking in his car so he won't be overheard, defending his reluctance to name names and place places. "I could go to prison," he shouts. Being a homosexual in the military can get him thrown out; committing homosexual acts while in the service is technically punishable by imprisonment. After 28 years of repressed sexuality, Paniccia still can't talk about it, and says only that he's "numb": "I've been holding it in for so long."
He admits that he has dated women, but when asked if he slept with them, he responds, with some horror, "That's personal!"
In his fluster, Paniccia realizes he is lost. The neighborhood looks like Phoenix with a bad haircut: roadside weeds, auto-parts stores, strip joints, a dark metaphor for his career's limbo. "I grew up in the Air Force," he says. "The Air Force is my home. I like the structure. I always knew where I stood. I like the uniform. I'm very proud of what I do."
Paniccia's sister describes him as "selfless," and it is indeed difficult to figure out what his "self" is. Paniccia is not a complex man. He admits that he has no life, that he is "boring," a workaholic. "The work grounds me," he says.
"That's typical in our family," says his sister. "My father's answer to everything was, 'Work it out.' We've all inherited that work ethic."
Why would someone who loves his work throw it away? "I'd had enough," Paniccia answers. "I could not come to terms with that I was doing a really good job while another part of me couldn't be known." And so, after 11 years of being everyone's perfect worker, he opted for the ultimate defiant and symbolic act in order to redeem his self-worth.
Gay military life is largely an exercise in undercover self-denial. Military gays tend to be conservative, because they are military men and women, after all, and in appearance they are barely discernible from the heterosexual population. Flamboyantly gay types, says Alan Stephens, tend to stay away. And so, except for enlisted Navy men, who know of fellow gay sailors because they happen upon each other in the anonymity of gay bars in port towns far from their bases, most gays in the military live lives of quiet desperation.
"There is no choice but to keep it to yourself," says Dr. Lewis Lampiris, a Chicago dentist who served four years as a captain in the Army. "You feel pariahlike because you're forced in the closet." Lampiris avoided social events with officers because their wives played a great role in military society and military society played a great role in career advancement. "And when you're transferred," he continues, "how do you take your lover with you?" "It's lonely, it's empty, it's a lot of things I'd like to forget," says Paniccia. "Isn't that enough? I don't need to go into any more detail. It's not dignified."
Tom Paniccia decided to make his announcement after watching Navy aviator Lieutenant Tracy Thorne's appearance on ABC's Nightline. "It's perfect," he thought. "It fits." And Paniccia realized that by coming out in a grand way, the Air Force would not be able to dispose of him quietly. The national exposure might increase his chances of being who he wanted to be: gay and in the Air Force.
He faxed a letter to Karen Stupski of Human Rights Campaign Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based gay lobby, informing her of his willingness to help. Stupski, who was discharged from the Navy in 1990 for homosexuality, called back the next day. She connected him to Alan Stephens in Baltimore, who screened him for any skeletons that might share his closet, and in fact suggested that Paniccia wait and think it over. When Paniccia insisted he was ready, Stupski put him in touch with ABC News.
The night before the interview, Paniccia called his family from New York City. His brother, who is a West Point graduate retired from the Army, took it in stride. Paniccia's father told him that he was disgusted and wouldn't dignify the disclosure with any other comment. His sister took the train from upstate New York to the city to spend the night with him, and she accompanied him to the studio in the morning to help him through his stage fright.
Paniccia's friends in the Air Force were surprised. "You can't be gay," one woman gushed. "You're the all-American boy." Given Paniccia's appearance and the slight inflections of his speech, it is not unimaginable that he should be gay, yet no one had ever asked if he had a girlfriend. The Air Force apparently has innocents even more naive than Paniccia.