Published in the Graduate Report, Fall/Winter 2011
Comments contributed by Joseph C. Steffan '94
FACT: In 2000, Joseph C. Steffan '94 donated to the Law School Library more than 50 boxes of papers documenting his seven-year legal battle over his dismissal from the U.S. Naval Academy. The collection includes hundreds of pages of legal briefs, oral arguments and court transcripts, as well as a draft of Steffan's 1992 book. Honor Bound: A Gay American Fights for the Right to Serve His Country. Joe is an executive director at Morgan Stanley in New York City.
September 20th of this year brought a long-awaited repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, the last in a lineage of anti-gay discrimination policies dating back to World War II. Beyond its important cultural and political significance, it was a day full of personal meaning for me, and one very much intertwined with my time as a student at UConn Law, now twenty years ago.
When I entered the Law School in 1991, I was in the midst of a public battle against the policy predating DADT, having been discharged in 1987 from the U.S. Naval Academy based solely on a truthful acknowledgement of my sexual orientation. Only six weeks from graduation, I was suspended from classes, denied my diploma and discharged from the military. At the time, I held one of the ten highest command ranks at the academy, leading one of six battalions comprising the Academy’s Brigade of Midshipmen.
In December of 1988, with the assistance of Lambda Legal, I filed suit seeking repeal of the military ban and reinstatement to active duty. My case built upon earlier ones brought by Leonard Matlovich, Perry Watkins and Miriam Ben Shalom, and was followed by others including Keith Meinhold, James Holobaugh, and Grethe Cammermeyer.
By the time I completed my undergraduate degree and entered UConn Law, these cases had generated a renewed public debate over the military’s policy, and also prompted a wave of college protests against discriminatory on-campus ROTC programs.
When I and other students learned of a planned recruiting visit to the Law School by the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, we mobilized an effort to challenge the presence of an openly discriminatory recruiter on campus. We found a clause in the Connecticut gay rights law prohibiting the use of state facilities for discriminatory recruiting and, statute in hand, marched into Dean Hugh Macgill’s office to make our demands — much to his delight and amusement. He directed us to the Attorney General, who concluded that a statutory exception for the University’s ROTC program seemed to apply.
We sought assistance from the ACLU, and organized an on-campus protest attended by many members of the Law School faculty and student body, several of whom spoke with personal and moving conviction on our behalf. Even local television crews were there, which made for an exciting break from the subdued ebb and flow of our daily academic lives. On that day I felt proud, embraced and valued as a member of the Law School community, in such profound contrast to how my days at the U.S. Naval Academy ended.
We soon filed suit and actually won an injunction again the JAG Corps recruiting visit, which was later upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court. Of course we were thrilled and a bit amazed, but the excitement of that victory aside, it would be hard to imagine a better law school project if you tried.
Congress unfortunately responded to that decision by passing the Solomon Amendment, forcing all land grant schools to accept ROTC and military recruiting programs or face losing all federal funding. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was passed in 1993, and my own case, following an initial victory in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, was overturned in 1994 by an en banc panel. By that time it was clear that, despite the momentum we had achieved, it would be years before real change might actually arrive.
And now, finally, it has come, nearly twenty five years since I left Annapolis. Looking back over those many years of hope, excitement, disappointment and frustration, I’m saddened that it took so long, and so many more people had to endure what I did. But I’m also proud to have played my part, and I’ve come to recognize more than ever how important the legal system, and legal profession are to the advancement of social justice in this country and beyond.
As much as this profession is misunderstood, vilified and under constant pressure of corruption by money and politics, it also holds in its cultural heart — a heart protected by like-minded jurists, academics and practitioners — a sacred respect for intellectual honesty and the truth. And perhaps as importantly, an appreciation for the nature, and history, of humankind’s many flaws and misdeeds. For those of you who stood with us, then and now, I offer you my thanks, and congratulations.