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Nonbinary SF vet honored 30 years after discharge

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Nonbinary veteran Stephan Steffanides. Photo: Courtesy Stephan Steffanides
Nonbinary veteran Stephan Steffanides. Photo: Courtesy Stephan Steffanides  

A nonbinary San Francisco Navy veteran who was "other than honorably" discharged before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — but who recently got their discharge upgraded — is the recipient of the Profile in Courage Award from Swords to Plowshares for the nonprofit's Veterans Day celebrations.

"'Profiles in Courage' is a book written by [former president, and sailor] John F. Kennedy and in the book he talked about people who had the courage to champion a minority opinion for the greater good," Stephan Steffanides explained to the Bay Area Reporter last week. "He talks about senators, but here we're talking about vets who were discharged under the old policy — 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' or older policies — as I was."

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

"I grew up in a Navy family, for one thing, but I knew I was different," Steffanides said. "Of course, in the 1980s, it was not a big deal to be in the closet, so the idea of telling the Navy I'm not gay made sense."

At the time, the U.S. military had a long-standing outright ban on "homosexuals" in the armed services. During the administration of then-President Bill Clinton, in 1993, this was changed to a compromise ban on LGBTQ people disclosing their sexual orientation — DADT — that remained in effect until 2011, after a congressional repeal 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 group's 1979 hit "In the Navy."

"I loved 'In the Navy,'" Steffanides said. "It was a validation. I was going down Market Street with my good friend, and thought 'we have to go to this recruitment office' and we signed up before we left. That song was like a recruitment ad for the Navy."

Steffanides said they didn't think the Navy would actually care about homosexuality, since he was signing up to serve America.

"I thought they aren't going to care if I'm 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 crewmen in April 1989.

The Navy initially concluded that a suicidal crew member, Clayton Hartwig, deliberately caused the explosion. During the investigation, officers leaked to the media that Hartwig was having a romantic relationship with another male crew member, Kendall Truitt, and that Hartwig decided to commit a murder-suicide when it soured.

The Navy was unable to conclude if these allegations were true, and eventually after a damning report later that year on CBS's "60 Minutes" and after a third-party investigation, withdrew its initial conclusions, expressed its regret to Hartwig's family, and stated that the cause of the explosion could not be determined.

Steffanides said that after the Iowa incident, things became more inquisitive.

"They opened my locker, looked inside, and found magazines," they said. "There were eight or nine other discharges at the same time. They'd call us in separately and say, 'I have evidence. The other guy already confirmed and incriminated you. If you cooperate, you'll get a lighter sentence.' Now, nobody wants to turn in your brother for being gay."

Steffanides said they were denied the presence of a judge advocate general (JAG) attorney, and "ended up going to the brig," at which time they were reduced in rank.

After being declared "unfit for service in the Navy," Steffanides said they had to stay at their post "to train my replacement." They were finally kicked out 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 others were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade later in Lawrence v. Texas.

"It was completely illegal to even be a homosexual in that state," Steffanides said, adding that they "had to go in through the back of the bar because we didn't want people to see us."

Family rift
Steffanides' other than honorable discharge opened a rift between them and their family.

"My family and I had a break over it," Steffanides said. "We couldn't talk about it. Everyone was ashamed of me."

Steffanides' internalized shame led to them "spending 30 years in the gutter, surviving on the streets."

"I'd planned on making a career in the Navy," Steffanides said. "I came home and became a drug addict, and at one point was turning tricks on Polk Street. I left San Francisco in shame, going from city to city."

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 went to an unhealthily low weight.

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

"And he's been my partner for seven years," Steffanides said, adding that Devon Raphael believed that they "just needed a chance."

"When I first met him I knew something was disturbing him," Raphael, a gay man, told the B.A.R. "I fell in love, but I knew there was this other thing, and eventually I found out it's about the Navy. So I've seen him struggle for years accepting himself."

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

"They were the first people who gave me any kind of dignity," Steffanides said. "They said we don't care about your discharge. We respect you for your service and we can help you."

Steffanides received counseling and health care from Swords to Plowshares, which also went with them through a two-and-a-half year ordeal to get their discharge status upgraded, which was finally successful last November.

"For 30 years, Veterans Day has been a day I dreaded because my discharge was other than 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 especially edifying and gratifying," Steffanides continued. "The level of commitment to serve I have now is the level I had then, but for 30 years I walked around feeling like a piece of shit."

Soo Kim, the assistant director of communications and external affairs for Swords to Plowshares, said that a five-minute video about Steffanides will be shown at the Veterans Day Concert and Reception Wednesday, November 10, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. in-person in the Mission Bay neighborhood, and again at the virtual Veterans Day Celebration on the following day at 5:30 p.m.

"This year, Stephan's story ended up coming to us through our legal department — we have a legal department that is very active with LGBTQ vets," Kim told the B.A.R. "This year is the 10th anniversary of the end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' This year is the perfect year to bring to light the story of LGBTQ vets who were discharged with less than honorable status because that's a lot of what our legal team is doing."

Steffanides was honored at the Mayor's Salute Veterans Day parade at Fisherman's Wharf on November 7.

"To be in the parade — in particular a Veterans Day parade, which I hadn't done since I was a kid — to be in a Veterans Day parade with my partner was scary," Raphael said, adding he thought "we're gay guys, we're not supposed to be doing this."

"All of a sudden, Stephan grabbed my hand and [they] would not let go," Raphael said. "Every time a person waved at us, Stephan raised both of our hands to wave back. I never, ever expected [them] to have that much strength."

Steffanides is now working on a video history project filming interviews with LGBTQ veterans to submit to the Smithsonian Institute.

"It's not a given you can just get your discharge overturned," they said. "Part of my award is the courage it takes to fight the federal government."

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