With one exception, Alan G. Stephens is a living portrait of the all-American dream.
Born to a patriotic family in the deep South, he was a natural athlete who played football under the late coach Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Alabama. He was the third-highest ranking cadet in his ROTC program and graduated to become an honored Army intelligence officer.
But Mr. Stephens is also gay, and the Department of Defense says "homosexuality is incompatible with military service." Four years ago, he resigned his commission out of fear that he would be caught and persecuted.
Today, as founder of the Maryland chapter of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America (GLBV), Mr. Stephens, 30, has become a spokesman for gays' right to remain in the military.
In conjunction with GLBV's national conference this week in Washington, Mr. Stephens, now a Baltimore school teacher, took his case to Congress. "Self-acknowledgment that I was gay or queer was relatively easy, but the decision to leave the profession of my dreams was the most difficult of my life," he told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, which met yesterday to discuss a spectrum of veterans' concerns.
Mr. Stephens added his account to those of Beth Harrison, a lesbian who was discharged from the Navy after being the subject of four internal investigations, and David K. Eckert, a retired Air Force colonel who is gay and HIV positive.
Their stories of harassment and loss of support are a handful among thousands, according to Mr. Stephens. As he came to meet other homosexuals discharged from the military, he was shocked by the treatment they had received, he said in an interview at his Charles Village home. "They had a bright future and all of sudden things turned upside down."
Since 1982, more than 13,000 people have been discharged from the military as homosexuals. It's impossible to know how many others, like Mr. Stephens, have resigned rather than lead lives of subterfuge.
In defense of its policy, the military argues that gays pose a security risk because of their vulnerability to blackmail. However, gay-rights advocates argue that repealing the policy would effectively remove the likelihood of blackmail.
The Defense Department policy has received increasing publicity through cases that highlight ambiguity within the courts, and the measures the military is willing to take to smoke out gays and lesbians:
* In December, U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch upheld the Pentagon's expulsion of Naval Academy midshipman Joseph C. Steffan, on the grounds that it was a precaution against the spread of AIDS.
* In 1990, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's challenge to an appeals court order to reinstate an Army veteran who had repeatedly told superiors he was gay, and was repeatedly allowed to re-enlist. Yet it has also refused to hear the appeals of gays and lesbians discharged from the military.
* At the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan, 13 sailors have been court-martialed or discharged for alleged homosexual activity.
* After being recommended for chief nurse of the National Guard for the United States, Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard and recipient of the Bronze Star in Vietnam, faces discharge because she is a lesbian.
Service members who are found to be gay are subjected to harassment and violation of rights during exhaustive investigations and discharge procedures, say those working to rescind the Pentagon policy.
In addition, veterans discharged for being gay are routinely denied education benefits and are effectively "outed" by forms that state the reason for discharge.
However, efforts to lift the military ban on gays are gaining momentum.
Surveys, including a 1991 Gallup poll which indicated that 65 percent of those questioned support admitting homosexuals to the U.S. military, also show that many Americans believe gays shouldn't be ousted because of sexual orientation. On a number of college campuses, students have protested the ROTC ban on gays and lesbians.
And currently, activists are seeking sponsorship of a congressional resolution asking President Bush to overturn the ban of gays in the armed forces.
The policy can be rescinded only by an act of Congress, a Supreme Court ruling or a decision by the secretary of defense. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has called the policy banning gays "a bit of an old chestnut," but has made no effort to rescind it.
Beyond stating its policy banning gays, the Pentagon refuses comment. "It's a policy statement. There's nothing to comment on," says James Turner, public affairs specialist for the Pentagon.
Activists are hoping to win over conservative congressional members on the grounds that discharging homosexuals from the military is a waste of tax dollars. In researching his new book, "Conduct Unbecoming," a history of gays in the military, Randy Shilts says he discovered that the military has spent millions of dollars investigating reports of homosexual activity in its ranks. "The Naval Investigative Service makes the KGB look like the American Civil Liberties Union," says the San Francisco Chronicle correspondent and author of "And the Band Played On," a celebrated book about AIDS.
For Mr. Stephens, the decision to come out of the closet, not just in his personal life, but in what has become a very public life, is an overdue obligation. When he left the Army, he left without protesting the policy, Mr. Stephens said.
"I really regret that in a lot of ways . . .," he said. "There's a lot of people who really respected me and would at least have to have questioned their own opinions if I walked through the door and said, 'Colonel, I'm gay and I'm leaving the service.' "