Non-binary SF vet honored 30 years after release

A non-binary San Francisco Navy veteran who was “other than honorably” released before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – but who recently got an upgrade on his release – is the Profile award recipient in Courage from Swords to Plowshares for the nonprofit Veterans Day celebrations.

“‘Profiles in Courage’ is a book written by [former president, and sailor] John F. Kennedy and in the book he spoke of people who had the courage to stand up for a minority opinion for the greater good, ”Stephan Steffanides told the Bay Area Reporter last week. “He’s talking about senators, but here we’re talking about veterans who were released under the old policy – ‘Don’t ask, don’t say’ or older policies – like I was.”

Steffanides, 53, joined the United States Navy in 1988. While born in Florida, they grew up in San Francisco.

“I grew up in a Navy family on the one hand, but I knew I was different,” Steffanides said. “Of course in the 1980s it was okay to be in the closet, so the idea of ​​telling the Navy I’m not gay made sense.”

At the time, the US military had long banned “homosexuals” from the armed forces outright. During the administration of then President Bill Clinton in 1993, this was changed to a compromise ban on LGBTQ people from disclosing their sexual orientation – DADT – which remained in effect until 2011, after qu he repeal of Congress was signed by then President Barack Obama.

But the Navy, of course, had a reputation even in the pre-DADT era; immortalized by the Village People in the hit of the group “In the Navy” in 1979.

“I loved ‘In the Navy’,” Steffanides said. “It was validation. I was walking down Market Street with my good friend and thought ‘we have to go to this recruiting office’ and we signed up before we left. This song was like a recruiting announcement for the Navy. . “

Steffanides said they didn’t think the Navy would really care about homosexuality, since he was committed to serving America.

“I thought they wouldn’t care if I was gay or not because I wanted to be of service and put my life on the line for the Constitution of the United States,” Steffanides said. “I took a chance and said I wanted to be a sailor.”

Steffanides served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, they said.

But the honeymoon was short-lived.

“There was a witch hunt,” Steffanides explained, after an explosion inside the USS Iowa killed 47 crew members in April 1989.

The Navy initially concluded that a suicidal crew member Clayton Hartwig had deliberately caused the explosion. During the investigation, officers disclosed to the media that Hartwig was romantically involved with another male crew member, Kendall Truitt, and that Hartwig decided to commit murder-suicide when he deteriorated. .

The Navy was unable to conclude whether these allegations were true, and ultimately, after a damning report later in the year on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and after a third party investigation, withdrew its original findings. , expressed regret to Hartwig’s family and said the cause of the explosion could not be determined.

Steffanides said after the Iowa incident things got more curious.

“They opened my locker, looked inside and found magazines,” they said. “There were eight or nine other releases at the same time. They called us separately and said, ‘I have proof. The other guy has already confirmed and incriminated you. If you cooperate, you will get a lighter sentence. “Now no one wants to report your brother for being gay.”

Steffanides said they were denied the presence of a lawyer for the Judge Advocate General (JAG) and that they “ended up going to the brig”, when they were demoted.

After being declared “unfit for service in the Navy”, Steffanides declared that they should remain at their post “to train my replacement”. They were eventually deported months later on Christmas Eve 1993 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Gay sex was still illegal in Virginia at the time, before the ban in that state and 13 more were declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court a decade later in Lawrence v. Texas.

“It was even totally illegal to be gay in this state,” Steffanides said, adding that they “had to enter from the back of the bar because we didn’t want people to see us”.

Family fault
The non-honorable Steffanide dump opened a wedge between them and their family.

“My family and I had a break from it,” Steffanides said. “We couldn’t talk about it. Everyone was ashamed of me.”

The internalized shame of Steffanides led them to “spend 30 years in the gutter, to survive in the streets”.

“I had planned to have a career in the Navy,” Steffanides said. “I came home and got addicted to drugs, and at one point I was doing tricks on Polk Street. I left San Francisco in shame, going from town to town.”

At one point, this led to Steffanides living “behind a trash can” in Los Angeles for about a year, they said.

“It was horrible,” they said, adding that they smoked cigarette butts and had lost unhealthy weight.

But Steffanides started to turn things around by getting sober and meeting someone through Facebook who hosted him in San Francisco.

“And he’s been my partner for seven years,” Steffanides said, adding that Devon Raphael thought they “just needed a chance”.

“When I first met him I knew something was bothering him,” Raphael, a gay man, told BAR. I have seen him struggle for years to accept himself. “

Steffanides was getting better but had relapses because they thought they were still “a bad person”. One day at a homeless shelter, Raphael introduced Steffanides to Swords to Plowshares, who had a booth there.

“They were the first to give me any dignity,” Steffanides said. “They said we don’t care about your exit. We respect you for your service and we can help you.”

Steffanides received advice and health care from Swords to Plowshares, who also walked them through a two-and-a-half-year ordeal to get their release status upgrade, which was ultimately successful in November. latest.

“For 30 years, Veterans Day was a day I dreaded because my release was not honorable,” Steffanides said, adding that now that their upgrade has been recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, “It makes me feel like I’m being recognized.”

“It’s particularly uplifting and rewarding,” Steffanides continued. “The level of commitment to serve that I have now is the level I had then, but for 30 years I walked around feeling like shit.”

Soo Kim, deputy director of communications and external affairs for Swords to Plowshares, said a five-minute video on Steffanides will be shown during the Veterans Day concert and reception on Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 5 p.m. at 7:30 p.m. in person. in the Mission Bay neighborhood, and again at the virtual Veterans Day celebration the next day at 5:30 p.m.

“This year, Stephan’s story reached us through our legal department – we have a very active legal department with LGBTQ vets,” Kim told BAR. “This year is the 10th anniversary of the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Say It.’ This year is the perfect year to shine a light on the history of LGBTQ veterans who have been released with less than honorable status, because that’s a big part of what our legal team does. “

Steffanides was honored at the Mayor’s Veterans Day Parade at Fisherman’s Wharf on November 7.

“Being in the parade – especially a Veterans Day parade, which I hadn’t done since I was a kid – being in a Veterans Day parade with my partner was scary,” Raphael said, adding that he thought “we are gay, we are not supposed to do this.”

“All of a sudden, Stephan grabbed my hand and [they] would not let go, “said Raphael.” Whenever someone waved to us, Stephan raised both of our hands to greet us. I never, never planned [them] have so much strength. “

Steffanides is currently working on a video story project filming interviews with LGBTQ veterans for submission to the Smithsonian Institute.

“It is not obvious, you can just have your discharge canceled,” they said. “Part of my award is the courage it takes to fight the federal government.”

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