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Military must get over gay bias

One soldier is dead, and another is about to be kicked out of the military. And I'm trying hard not to overdramatize the connection between the two.

Pfc. Barry Winchell's death, according to the charges against the man who's been taken into custody, was premeditated murder _ and very likely a "hate crime" as well. Winchell was believed to be homosexual, and Pvt. Calvin Glover, the Fort Campbell, Ky., colleague charged with beating him to death with a baseball bat, was reported to have made disparaging remarks about gays after he was taken into custody.

Nothing that awful has happened to Steve May, an Army reservist who is also an openly gay member of the Arizona Legislature. He is now subject of an investigation that could result in a less-than-honorable discharge from the military. The offense? He violated the "don't ask, don't tell" rule that allows homosexuals to remain in the service so long as they don't publicly disclose their homosexuality; the military is forbidden to ask about their sexual orientation.

Two special bits of irony attend May's case. First, he is, by all accounts, an outstanding soldier. Indeed, if he survives the attempt to oust him, he's likely to be promoted to captain.

Second, May was essentially out of the service when the trouble came. He had completed his ROTC training, done two years' active duty (winning a promotion to first lieutenant) and was expecting to serve out the remainder of his eight-year obligation in the inactive reserve.

Then Kosovo happened, and May received notice that he would be going on active reserve status.

Here's the problem. May, 27, had run unsuccessfully for the Statehouse in 1996 when, he told me, a supporter "outed" him _ publicized his homosexuality _ apparently in an attempt to rally the gay vote. In his 1998 campaign, May _ a conservative Republican and former Eagle Scout _ disclosed his sexual orientation and was elected. "I thought I needed to be open and honest with my constituency," he said.

But his superiors were duty-bound to react to that openness.

"My commanders aren't doing this vindictively," he said in a telephone interview. "They don't have a choice. I guess the real issue for me right now is to find the best way to transition out of the service honorably. I enjoyed my active duty. It was a great two years, and I got an incredible evaluation report. "

He said he'd been following the Fort Campbell case with great interest. "The situations are different, of course," he said. "In the first place, I'm an officer, and that has kept me away from some of the (homophobia) that enlisted men have to deal with. Also, as an active reservist, I'm a civilian for 28 days a month, and my colleagues get to know me on that basis. I don't have to deal with the institutional homophobia."

And that, May believes, was Winchell's undoing. "The military as an institution teaches that gay people are unfit for military service." Isn't it likely, he wondered, that that institutional attitude filters down to people who may not be able to deal with it appropriately? Haven't we always feared that intolerance in high places, however judiciously expressed, can push less-disciplined bigots into violence?

May thinks the military needs to get over its bias _ and not merely in the interest of gay rights. "The military is facing a readiness problem. Recruitment is becoming more difficult. And every year a thousand or more qualified and trained service members are booted out of the military because of their sexual orientation. Homophobia contributes to a huge waste of resources."

And sometimes a lot worse.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group