A Dream Deferred

Thorne-Begland rejoins debate
over gays in the military

By Andy Taylor

Honesty may be the best policy but it can be costly. Just ask Tracy Thorne-Begland, L’98. Honesty about his sexual orientation ended his dream career as a Naval aviator.

In February, at the invitation of the Law School chapter of the Equality Alliance, Thorne-Begland was back on campus to talk about his experiences in the Navy and the courts, as the nation, in the midst of war and economic turmoil, again faces the issue of gays in the military.

And while he is ready to stand up again in the fight for gay rights, Thorne-Begland says, “I’m happy to help out but I’ve never wanted to be a poster child.”

Twenty years ago, Thorne-Begland graduated at the top of his class from Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla. He was assigned to Oceana Naval Air Station near Virginia Beach as a bombardier navigator.

Because of his strong record, he earned the right to pick the aircraft of his choice, and for Thorne-Begland, that was easy. He was hooked on the A-6 Intruder attack plane in college when he read Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder, a book about A-6 pilots in the Vietnam War. For the next three years Navy Lt. Thorne-Begland flew the A-6 from aircraft carriers, dropping bombs during nightly training missions along the East Coast and over Puerto Rico.

As much as he loved what he was doing, Thorne-Begland was struggling with the secret of his sexual orientation (though he had “come out” to friends with whom he served). He felt a moral obligation to be honest about himself, though he knew that the military banned homosexuals.

Despite the likely consequences, Thorne-Begland felt two compelling concerns: His parents had instilled in him a strong sense of honesty and integrity. And he was troubled that he was putting his life on the line for his country every day but could not be his true self. (Two of Thorne-Begland’s squadron mates had been killed in training accidents.)

After being counseled by a gay and lesbian veterans organization, Thorne-Begland agreed to go on ABC’s Nightline on May 19, 1992, where he told Ted Koppel and millions of viewers that he was a gay naval aviator.

At the time, incoming President Bill Clinton said he would challenge the ban, and debate over the policy had begun. Thorne-Begland’s Nightline appearance placed him in the center of the national spotlight.

In 1993, after noisy debate and considerable opposition from the military, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise was put into place. It remains the standing order for the Armed Forces.

Over the years, the Navy honorably discharged Thorne-Begland twice, initially after his revelation on TV. He was reinstated after filing suit in federal court. He was discharged again in 1995, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.

Michael and Tracy at home with their  son Chance and daughter Logan.
Michael and Tracy at home with their
son Chance and daughter Logan.

A career and a family

Thorne-Begland says he greatly misses the Navy and flying but he has moved on with his life. “I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’ve picked up the pieces.”

During his legal battles, Thorne-Begland developed a fascination with the law, and he and his life partner, Michael Thorne-Begland, who had been living in Washington, D.C., both enrolled at the Law School. Richmond, they believed, would provide a top quality legal education in a welcoming environment.

Today, Tracy is managing deputy in charge of the violent crimes team at the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and Michael is a director and assistant general counsel with The Altria Group in Richmond. They have 4-year-old twins, Chance and Logan.

At the Law School, Thorne-Begland says, he aspired to be a prosecutor because he enjoys trial work and going into court. “I love what I’m doing but it’s not the dream I thought I’d be living 15, 20 years ago,” he said in an interview in his office in the John Marshall Courts Building in downtown Richmond. A photograph of an A-6 in flight hangs on the wall behind his desk. The room is adorned with posters and pictures related to the Navy, aviation, and his family. “My days in the Navy were some of the best days of my life,” he said.

If given a chance, Thorne-Begland says he would re-enlist, though at age 42, he realizes his days as an aviator are over. Instead, he would consider joining a reserve unit where he could do legal work as a JAG officer.

Thorne-Begland and other gays and lesbians who want to serve in the military have reason for renewed optimism. The Obama Administration has said it will ask the Defense Department to end the ban on homosexuals in the Armed Forces.

But Thorne-Begland also was optimistic when Clinton took on the issue and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the policy.

“It was hugely disappointing,” Thorne-Begland says. “The fact that it has been 16 years is disappointing.”

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ revisited

Virginia Congressman James P. Moran tracks the number of military personnel discharged for being gay under the “Don’t Ask” rule (13,000 so far) and is one of a growing number of politicians calling for its repeal.

Moran, who serves on the House committee that oversees military spending, was quoted by the Associated Press in March asking, “How many more good soldiers are we willing to lose due to a bad policy that makes us less safe and secure?”

Public opinion also seems to be shifting. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll, released last summer, 75 percent of those responding supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

“It is in our national interest to have people like Tracy in the military.”
Former law Dean John R. Pagan

Sam Bernier, an Iraq combat veteran who just completed his first year at the Law School, believes gays should be allowed to serve.

“I believe that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a ridiculous policy that never was effective,” Bernier says. “The policy only encourages homosexual service members to be dishonest with themselves and others.”

Bernier, who has served as an infantryman in both the Marines and the Army National Guard, says he thinks many in the Armed Forces are ready to accept gays and lesbians into their ranks, though he has reservations about them being assigned to the front lines in ground combat operations.

“My concern about homosexual personnel in front line combat units stems not from their sexual orientation but from the possibility of personal relationships that would damage the integrity of the unit,” Bernier says. (Women are not allowed to serve in ground combat units.)

Former law Dean John R. Pagan, a University professor at Richmond who teaches a course on sexual orientation and the law, says he is convinced that the restrictions on gays serving in the military will change.

“I think the nation is ready now,” says Pagan, who was dean when Thorne-Begland was at the Law School. “I think Congress needs to catch up with popular opinion. It is in our national interest to have people like Tracy in the military.”

Thorne-Begland believes the policy comes with a substantial cost. The military is losing talented people who could be filling needs, and in these budget-strapped times, there is a significant cost attached to discharging gays. Thorne-Begland says the Navy spent $2 million training him to be an officer and combat aviator.

The experience still hurts, he says. “It is a loss of a dream I had for a long time. I miss it every day that I’m not flying. I don’t get all weepy eyed looking back. I have never dwelled on it. I have never regretted it. I have great respect for the Navy. I hope to be back there one day.”

Andy Taylor recently retired as metro editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.