But clearly, the "selfless" airman had suddenly laid claim to a strong, if symbolic, identity by committing an act as self-annihilating and self-aggrandizing as jumping on a hand grenade. He found a role as a national symbol, a role that suits his idealistic if slightly hollow pronouncements, his guarded nature.

Beneath it all, he is still an innocent--though he will soon be judged guilty.
@body:Suddenly the gay military is everywhere in the national media. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives prohibiting discrimination in the armed forces based on sexual orientation. As if on cue, clean-cut-but-gay men and women from the various branches have made nationally televised statements. Navy Lieutenant Thorne, who is stationed in Virginia, came out on Nightline last May, and on the same day Keith Meinhold, a Navy petty officer stationed in California, came out on ABC's World News Tonight. Since Paniccia's admission, Army National Guard Captain Pamela Mindt granted an interview to the Minneapolis Star, and this week CNN is planning to air an interview with a gay Army enlisted man in Georgia.

It seems almost orchestrated, though all involved claim it's spontaneous, as if each sensed that the timing was right. A definite ground swell is building.

After Paniccia was inspired to come out by Thorne's TV appearance--I didn't want to see the momentum die--Thorne appeared on Paniccia's Good Morning America segment via remote hookup. "It's important to keep this out in the open," Thorne said later.

Their motives in challenging the law are at once selfish and idealistic. Ultimately, they want to stay in the military, but without having to hide their sexual orientation. "It's a very lonely life," says Thorne. "I guess it's hard to understand unless you've been hiding something all your life." He pauses a moment: "But it's ruining lives, ruining careers, ruining the very spirit of our country, which is based on the spirit of diversity."

Air Force Regulation 39-10, paragraph 5-35B, reiterates Department of Defense Directive 1332.14, a scant few sentences that say, "Homosexuality is incompatible with military service. The presence in the military environment of persons who engage in homosexual conduct or who, by their statements, demonstrate a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct, seriously impairs the accomplishment of the military mission."

Just what that means is anyone's guess, because the Department of Defense refuses to comment on it and can provide no experts to philosophize on the subject. Colonel Doug Hart, who handles press inquiries for the Department of Defense, says, "We don't technically have any [homosexuals] in the military, so there are no experts on it." In the next breath, he goes on to say that 926 troops were expelled for homosexuality in 1991 (more than half of those were in the Navy, one-quarter of them women) and more than 13,000 since 1982, when DOD policy became more stringent regarding homosexuality.

General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, elaborated on DOD logic in a February address to Congress, saying that the military could not take those ". . .who favor a homosexual lifestyle, and put them in with heterosexuals who would prefer not to have somebody of the same sex find them sexually attractive, put them in close proximity, ask them to share the most private facilities together, the bedroom, the barracks, the latrines, the showers."

Congresswoman Schroeder shot those words back to Powell in a pointed letter. "You'll have to forgive me--once a history major, always a history major," she wrote, "because your shower apprehensions or privacy fears could have been written in 1942 from the Chairman of the General Board to the Secretary of the Navy."

Then she quoted from that document: "How many white men would choose, of their own accord, that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess and in a gun's crew should be of another race? . . .If the issue were forced, there would be a lowering of contentment, teamwork and discipline in the service."

Powell, of course, is the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I am sure you are aware," Schroeder continued, "that your reasoning would have kept you from the mess hall a few decades ago, all in the name of good order and discipline and regardless of your dedication and conduct."

Schroeder also called attention to the PERSEREC reports commissioned by DOD, which were allegedly discounted because they could find no logical reason for discrimination against gays. "They don't know the difference between sexual harassment and sexual orientation," says Paniccia. The assumption is that gays have out-of-control libidos that they force on others.

Miriam Ben-Shalom, who was bounced out of the Army in 1990, jokes to the contrary: "In the face of Tailhook," she says, referring to last fall's Navy pilot group-grope in Las Vegas, "I've always wondered why they allow young heterosexual males in the military. They are a known security risk. They are known to act out sexually."

These clean-cut-but-gay military men, on the other hand, stand adamantly against sexual misconduct. Thorne speaks out explicitly against fraternization. "There is no business for any two people in the same command to be involved in a relationship--gay or heterosexual," he says. And Schroeder's bill, H.R. 5208, likewise states that sexual misconduct rules must stand.

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