Navy officer from Salisbury faces dismissal for disclosing he's gay

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Taunted for months by shipmates who suspected he was gay, Navy Lt. Richard "Dirk" Selland nervously approached his captain in January 1993, believing that the chance to end the harassment was worth the price of revealing his homosexuality.

"If it weren't for the teasing, I don't think I would have raised it," said the 25-year-old Salisbury native. "Enough was enough."

The lieutenant disclosed that he was homosexual the day after Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president, having promised to lift the ban on gays in the military.

Lieutenant Selland said his decision to reveal his sexual orientation was based in part on Mr. Clinton's campaign pledge.

But according to Lieutenant Selland, the captain told him to pack his things -- and lent him a gym bag so he could leave immediately.

"I was removed from the sub the way the Colts were from Baltimore," the lieutenant said. "Quietly, in the middle of the night."

Now the Navy is seeking Lieutenant Selland's dismissal under the new "Don't ask, Don't tell, Don't pursue" policy, with hearings set to begin next Wednesday before a three-member naval board of inquiry.

Under the policy, superiors must not ask about a person's sexual orientation or investigate unsubstantiated claims that they may be gay.

But gay service members will be discharged if they declare their homosexuality or engage in homosexual conduct.

The administration adopted "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy, after Mr. Clinton retreated from his pledge to lift the ban completely.

Supporters of the new policy said it would protect gay service members who keep their sexual orientation private.

Not so, critics say. Lieutenant Selland's case will be among the first to challenge the new regulations as unconstitutional if his lawyers go ahead with a lawsuit later this summer.

But Lieutenant Selland's supporters also argue that his story illustrates the practical flaws in the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

What happened to the lieutenant, they say, shows that even well-regarded members of the service who keep their sexuality private can be harassed into disclosing they are gay -- and then expelled.

"Don't ask, Don't tell is unworkable and unenforceable," said Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a private group here that provides legal help to gays in the military. "You have to guard every word and action you take. It's just the old ban in new clothing."

The Navy, for its part, argues that when Lieutenant Selland told his captain that he was gay, he in effect declared his homosexuality, violating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"We're not picking on individuals," said Lt. Dave Waterman, a spokesman for the Navy Bureau of Personnel. "This is current policy as well as current law, from the president on down, and we're merely carrying out policy as directed by our commander-in-chief, the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy."

Lt. Col. Doug Hart, a spokesman for the Defense Department, also defended the new policy and pointed to a slower pace of dismissals for homosexuality.

According to Colonel Hart, 279 service members have been dismissed from the military on account of homosexuality in the first seven months of fiscal 1994, compared with 682 for all of fiscal year 1993 and 708 for fiscal 1992.

Rejecting assertions by Mr. Osburn and others that the military is still trying to root out gays, Colonel Hart said that "if we were ferreting out homosexuals, don't you think the numbers would be up?

"An individual who keeps his sexual orientation to himself could continue to serve in the military without any problem," Colonel Hart said. The Pentagon, he said, does not tolerate any form of harassment, and military personnel attend regular training classes on "how to treat one another in a respectful manner."

Although Colonel Hart said he could not discuss Lieutenant Selland's case, he said that "if a person is being harassed, an individual can go to a commander to have that stopped without making any statements."

But Lieutenant Selland said he felt that when he approached the captain to complain about the harassment, the captain was likely to press him on whether he was gay.

Hank Hockeimer Jr., the lieutenant's lawyer, argues that the lieutenant's case shows why the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is unworkable.

"The policy states that homosexual orientation itself isn't a bar to military service," said Mr. Hockeimer. "But any statement concerning one's sexual orientation, no matter to whom it is directed or how or why it's made, violates the policy. It doesn't make any sense."

Sandra Carson Stanley, an associate professor of sociology at Towson State University and editor of a forthcoming book on gays in the military, agrees that the policy is "impractical."

Under the policy, she said, a high-ranking officer has wide discretion to decide when a service member has declared his or her homosexuality and should be investigated.

Had Lieutenant Selland been stationed on another ship, Professor Stanley said, "he might find himself in a different situation."

"The 'don't ask' rule doesn't prohibit fellow sailors from asking questions," Lieutenant Selland said. "And what exactly does 'don't tell' mean, since that's completely up to individual interpretation?"

Lieutenant Selland is an unlikely candidate for a public battle over sexual orientation. He recalls concealing his homosexuality in the years since his 1986 graduation from James M. Bennett High School in Salisbury, where his parents, Richard and Dalarie Selland, still live.

As a college student, he invited women to military formals and would later lie to them about why he didn't want to continue to date.

Commissioned as an officer after graduating from North Carolina State University in 1990, he scored high marks at Navy training programs for supply officers and submariners, before joining the USS Hammerhead, a nuclear attack submarine, in 1991.

Although Lieutenant Selland says he never engaged in homosexual conduct while aboard the submarine, his shipmates suspected he was gay.

According to critics like Mr. Osburn, of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, the predicament of Lieutenant Selland underscores why the new policy is scarcely preferable to the former total ban.

"The new policy is simply a game of hide and seek," he said. "You have to watch out for yourself and for others every second of every day. You never know who might come up with a wild allegation . . . If you are gay, you have to lie to stay in the military."

The Navy still insists the new policy is fair. "The only way it can become an issue is if somebody admits to their orientation or admits to acts," said Lieutenant Waterman of the Navy Bureau of Personnel. "The whole idea of this policy is that we're not going out to look for homosexuals."

Since his expulsion from the sub, Lieutenant Selland has been assigned to shore duty at a Navy depot in Norfolk, Va.

In September, Lieutenant Selland was two days away from dismissal under the old total ban when a federal judge in Washington, D.C., blocked the Navy's efforts to dismiss him. In March, the Navy dropped its move to dismiss him under the old ban. But in April, the Navy told Lieutenant Selland and his lawyers that they planned to discharge him under "Don't ask, Don't tell."

Ironically, Lieutenant Selland has received two evaluations since his expulsion from the sub, both recommending promotion. He isn't sure he will be around to receive them; proceedings to dismiss him are to begin next week.

"I didn't ask to be in the middle of this civil rights struggle," he said. "I'm just a small-town boy from the Eastern Shore getting thrown into the middle of all this."

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