OUT OF THE AIR FORCE CLOSETHOW A MODEL SERGEANT CAME TO ADMIT HIS HOMOSEXUALITY ON NATIONAL TV
On Thursday, July 23, Air Force Staff Sergeant Tom Paniccia, 28, sat nervously on the set of ABC-TV's Good Morning America, resolutely blinking at the camera lights, his black hair combed back so tightly it looked painful. His mission that day ran counter to Air Force regulations. He was "coming out," announcing to his family, to his commander and to his colleagues at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, that he was a homosexual. When co-host Joan Lunden asked what was on his mind, Paniccia's voice cracked, but he bravely spoke out.
"Well, Ma'am," he began, "what I really want to say is that the policy is very unfair, and maybe somebody like me coming on a show like this, I can somehow show people by assigning a human face to the issue. And maybe people will realize that gays like myself are just average people. You know, I'm hardworking. I try to do my job, and I'm proud to serve my country."
It was not grand and dramatic rhetoric, but the revelation will likely result in Paniccia's expulsion from the military. And when Lunden asked if he realized what he was getting himself into, he answered without hesitation, "Yes, Ma'am, I am prepared for it."
@body:Tom Paniccia is of average height, but he has a weightlifter's chest and a military-salute posture that looks uncomfortable in civilian clothing. With his Harry Connick Jr. haircut and sideways smile, he looks like he could play the role of "the Italian kid from Brooklyn" in a 1940s war flick. By all accounts, Paniccia is an exemplary airman, and in his 11 years in the Air Force, he received impossibly perfect performance evaluations. In 1982 his supervisor wrote, "A1C Paniccia is one of the finest and most capable airmen I have known. . . .He has unlimited potential and exceeds in all tasks." In 1985: "SrA Paniccia epitomizes the clean-cut airman that we all wish we had hundreds of." In 1987: "He is the best unit training manager in the Air Force." In 1991: "NCOs of this caliber will ensure a viable Air Force into the next century."
Paniccia has a fat packet of commendations, thank-you letters, fan mail from commanders. He was Noncommissioned Officer of the Year at a base in England, Training Systems Manager of the Year the next season, and in 1989 he reached the quarterfinals of the Twelve Outstanding Airmen of the Year program, which means best in the whole damned Air Force.
He specialized in overhauling training programs and was a hopeless workaholic, often working nights and weekends and volunteering beyond his responsibility. During Operation Desert Storm, he volunteered to ride escort for truck convoys of bombs and munitions headed for air bases in England from which airplanes bombed Iraq's Republican Guard. His commander wrote: "SSgt Paniccia's outstanding achievements and dedication as unit training manager were reflected by the 850MMS(T) successfully accomplishing the largest munitions movement in the United Kingdom since WW II." He was consistently promoted "below the zone," meaning ahead of his peers.
When he wasn't working, Paniccia ran for the track club, played on the softball team, was a lector in the Catholic church, organized base social functions, gave speeches as an Air Force good-will ambassador, financially supported foster children in Antigua and Bolivia, went to night school to get a GED and an associate's degree. He's working on a B.S. degree so he can qualify for officers' training school.
"He was always Mr. Personality," says his sister, Ann Dunning, "boisterous, but he never got in trouble." He grew up in Ticonderoga, New York, a small town near the Vermont border. His mother died of leukemia while he was a toddler, and his father didn't remarry until Tom was an adolescent.
"But we weren't the Cleaver family," his sister admits, and young Tom essentially ran away to the Air Force. In 1981, one month after his 17th birthday, he entered basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. A year and a half later, he was in Korea for a 13-month tour, was rotated stateside and then sent to England for four years before being stationed in Tucson.
Somewhere along the way, the young airman realized he was gay. He won't say when or where, for fear it could be used against him in court, but he recalls a late-night aborted conversation with his best friend, who has since left the Air Force.
They were driving home from a woman's house--the friend had been seriously dogging her--and there was snow on the ground. It was dark and quiet and safe, and Paniccia mustered up his nerve and blurted out, "I think I might be gay."
The friend quickly responded, "Close your eyes. Can you imagine kissing me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Paniccia shot back.
"Then you're not gay," the friend pronounced, and the conversation ended.
@body:Tom Paniccia admits that he's "not into being gay," that he doesn't go to bars, or even drink, for that matter, and that he prefers long runs in the woods, "where it's so quiet I can listen to my own breathing." His co-workers have always jived him for being so damned straight. Since his coming out, the local gay media have chided him for not being gay enough.
"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.
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.
If Schroeder's bill fails, the regulation could also be changed by presidential executive order. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton said, during the Tracy Thorne Nightline segment, "I think there ought to be a presumption in favor of Americans being able to serve their country."
And the ban could be overturned in the courts, though the U.S. Supreme Court has twice refused to hear cases regarding gay soldiers. Miriam Ben-Shalom's case was the first. The Wisconsin drill sergeant was expelled from the Army in 1975, but lower courts forced her reinstatement in 1987. That decision was appealed by "those baggy-assed old men in the Pentagon," as she describes them, and the case was reversed in 1990. Ben-Shalom was classified an "erroneous enlistment" and subsequently released without a formal discharge and without benefits. Ironically, during the years of her reinstatement she won recognition as best drill sergeant instructor at her base. "The people I worked with were just fine," she insists.
When Paniccia returned to work after his TV admission, his supervisor, Senior Master Sergeant Larry Bearden (who was not permitted to speak to New Times), grasped for words, and Paniccia picked them out for him. "I hope it's business as usual," Paniccia said.
"That's just what I want," answered Bearden.
Paniccia's lawyers, Karen Peters and Mark Freeze of the Phoenix firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, are watching a California case in which an Army Reserve captain (and Methodist minister) named Dusty Pruitt filed for reinstatement on the grounds of freedom of speech. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Pruitt's appeal on that basis, but remanded the case to the district-court level to determine if she could claim her rights to equal protection under the law.
Peters and Freeze have taken Paniccia's case on a pro bono basis. They are young, and eager to go to the Supreme Court if they can. Peters has a lava lamp in her office; Freeze is a dead ringer for Kiefer Sutherland. Says Freeze: "The Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue. They have ruled on sexual issues, but the narrow issue is: Is this military policy unconstitutional under the equal-protection clause of the Constitution? Other circuits have ruled on it. The Ninth has not, but they're making noises. If they rule for Pruitt, there would be a split in the circuits." And a precedent set, though no one is holding his breath.
@body:Staff Sergeant Tom Paniccia sat alone at a table in an off-base McDonald's restaurant. His battle fatigues were pressed and flawless, his black boots buffed to incandescence. He was not allowed to talk to New Times while in uniform, and he was trying hard not to give the Air Force any grounds for issuing a less-than-honorable discharge by disobeying that order.
If closet military life had been lonely, this was exile and abandonment. None of his friends in the Air Force--the only friends he has--would talk to New Times on his behalf, not even the superiors who wrote such glowing evaluations of his service. They had been instructed by the Air Force not to talk to the press. When a Tucson television station tried to do man-on-the-street interviews with airmen in uniform outside the gates of the base, nearly all declined comment.
He has no idea when he will be separated from duty, when he will stop receiving his paycheck, when he will be granted a hearing. He remains stubbornly committed.
"I said three words--I am gay," he says, by way of dismissal. "Does that change anything?"
On the Sunday after he came out, Paniccia was looking for inspiration on his knees in a church in Tucson, wondering what his late mother would think of him and praying, "God, give me strength. Help me to know I did the right thing. Help me to know that You still love me."
The gravity of his situation had sunk in: He would likely lose the only career and life he has known. But he left church calm, his resolve intact.
A day later, he was called into his commander's office to meet with Air Force investigators. His senior master sergeant and his captain went with him for moral support and listened as the investigators politely read him his rights. At the end of the week, when the commander returned to the base, he cordially informed Paniccia that the discharge procedure had begun. The two exchanged pleasantries, but the rules are firm: Paniccia had seven days to make a choice. He could waive his rights and quietly leave the Air Force or request a formal hearing. Last Friday he chose the hearing. That was the point from the outset. It will likely touch off a long and bloody battle. And if Tom Paniccia gets shot down while stoically and futilely waving the colors of his idealism, he won't be the first military hero to do so.
OBJECTION D'ART SAY, BUB, WHAT'S THE EX... v8-12-92
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Phoenix Family Tied to Iraq's Badr Corps Being Booted From Country
- College Hockey Player Max Gardiner Arrested After Alleged Trespass
- Anti-Islam, Free Speech Rally to Be Held at Islamic Community Center This Friday