The Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney came out in the 1990s. He publicly opposed the country’s policy that prevented gays from serving in the military by appearing on Nightline. Because of legal wrangling, the Navy ultimately discharged him not once, but twice for it. The story of how this Richmonder’s fight contributed to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Sitting in the waiting room of the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, I overhear the receptionist speaking to a mother on the telephone about her eighteen-year-old son’s charge: possession of heroin. The mother called to find out at which courtroom her son should appear. It will be his second court appearance, as it turns out, having missed his first court appearance for one reason or another. What floors me about the conversation, that I can’t help but be within earshot of, is the tranquility with which the receptionist speaks about matters as damaging and unlawful as heroin possession and the absence of appearing before a judge. She speaks as though she’s dispensing computer advice to a technological Luddite (“Have you tried turning it off and then on again, ma’am?”). A subject matter that seems utterly shocking to me is hackneyed and commonplace to the receptionist. The day-to-day, as it were.
Another day-to-day event is passing through the metal detectors if one works at the John Marshall Courts Building in downtown Richmond. There are no cell-phones allowed. No recording material is permitted. Restrictions that I am most certainly not used to. But this is the work life of Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Tracy Thorne-Begland, who has served in his current legal role since 2006. Compared to the “restrictions” imposed upon him by others in the past, this is all nothing for Attorney Thorne-Begland.
When he opens the door that separates the waiting room from the back office area, he is in a spotless white polo tucked into dress pants. He is svelte and young-looking, aged 44. He extends his hand first, welcoming me to the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Office. As we walk back through an office avenue that stretches between blocks of cubicles, there is a still (surprisingly so) amount of quiet. Perhaps the lack of the hustle-and-bustle that I had envisioned for an attorney’s office in Richmond is one reason why Thorne-Begland seems so calm and at ease around me, a virtual stranger.
I have the benefit of breathing easy in his presence; I have not violated any Richmond or Virginia statute. The reason that I am here, however, is, in fact, related to the violation of code. Not mine; Thorne-Begland’s. While we chit-chat as he leads me to his office for our interview, I already know that millions of people saw his 1992 appearance on Nightline. And I also know that he was twice discharged (honorably) from the U.S. Navy as a result, more or less.
When I enter his office I see framed photographs and artwork that recount and remind him of his time in the Navy, which I already discern to be an important part of his life–despite having been discharged for telling the truth for the sake of integrity.
Tracy Thorne-Begland is gay, and being gay in the United States can be rather precarious; it can be downright calamitous should one be gay and also be in the military. But things have changed. Recently, President Obama signed into law a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy that had been law of the military land since the early 1990’s, one that will legally repeal the controversial armed forces regulation. The law takes effect on September 20. It’s a law that many (the author included) feel is a long-time coming. But I can only imagine what gay military personnel have gone through, as I am not gay and have never served in the armed forces. That’s why I’m sitting in a chair in an office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney–because Tracy Thorne-Begland is a living legend of American history.
— ∮∮∮ —
As with many monumental moments in human lives, it was a book that changed the life of a young Tracy. While attending Vanderbilt University in 1987, he read Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder, a novel about 1960’s American naval aviators and flight officers fighting during the Vietnam War. “I’ve had an interest in flying since I was a kid,” says Thorne-Begland, sitting behind his desk in his office. But it was the “sense of service to your country for a higher purpose” that the novel imbued that encouraged him to become a fighter pilot.
He visited a Navy recruiter in Nashville, Tennessee and began the eventual year-long application process. He would later attend the Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida where he would study and train for two years. AOCS was a “boot camp” that commissioned him as an Officer. He then participated in 14 months of flight school followed by roughly 10 months of flight training at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach in December 1990.
He tells me that in the 1990’s, Navy pilots still flew the Vietnam-era planes, the same ones that he had read about in Flight of the Intruder.
One of the perks of finishing first in a flight school class was that the leading student was able to choose where he or she was to be stationed afterwards. Thorne-Begland made it his goal to finish first. He did during each of the three phases of his flight training, ultimately finishing with the highest overall flight and academic average for the year. After completing the two years of training, Thorne-Begland joined his fleet squadron the “Fighting Tigers” (VA-65).
In 1992, Thorne-Begland says he was “going through the coming-out process.” He contemplated not only his sexuality, but his identity as a whole. “Once I got comfortable with being gay,” says the Commonwealth Attorney, he was then “…forced to lie about who I was.” Navy policy forced him into a precarious situation, as, at that time, it was official armed forces policy to ban gays and lesbians from serving regardless of whether they “told” (this was before DADT was implemented). Whether through omission or outright prevarication, Thorne-Begland could not admit the truth. Feeling that lying was an affront to his integrity and the integrity that came with being a naval officer, Thorne-Begland was in a perpetual state of dis-ease.
Naval aviation carries with it a “high-degree of risk.” Thorne-Begland and his fellow pilots stationed at Virginia Beach had been told that in a 20-year career, approximately 25% of them would be killed in action of some sort. There were eight of them. While feeling pressured to lie about his identity, two of those eight died in separate incidents. Thorne-Begland was “willing to die” for his country, but not take an dispiriting lie with him to the grave. It took $2 million to train Thorne-Begland, and the thought that something as inconsequential as his sexual orientation undermining his success and loyalty unnerved him. He began to think of publicly opposing the anti-gay policy, and later came out to his fellow fliers.
“It was a complete non-issue,” says Thorne-Begland. “People were supportive of me.” His confession was not used disparagingly. Yes, there were jokes and stereotypical ribbing between the men, but there had always been jokes and ribbing. So, including Thorne-Begland’s homosexuality was not meant to be mean or churlish but a way to incorporate him fully into the cadre of fliers. It was, in its own way, merely a sign of affection. Thorne-Begland found this to be “encouraging,” feeling that the often-touted opprobrium against gays and lesbians serving as undermining morale was an utter falsehood. Thorne-Begland continued flying with his squadron, and his fellow pilots and friends flew with him without a second thought. But the military policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving dangled above him like a rickety guillotine blade.
This is exemplified when the Deputy Attorney tells me what his former commanding officer once uttered to him—a joke. The commanding officer said to Thorne-Begland that you can “build a thousand bridges, but if you suck one cock, they don’t call you a bridge builder on your tombstone.”
Sometime after this incident, Thorne-Begland sought the council of the predecessor of Service Members Legal Defense Network in Washington, D.C. (with whom he now serves on a Military Advisory Council). They were realistic, if not blunt, in assessing Thorne-Begland’s situation. “You’re going to be discharged.” What could help, however, was media “protection.” By publicly acknowledging that he was gay to a large audience, he might be able to stymie Navy actions to discharge him. The question, though, was how best to do that?
In April 1992, Thorne-Begland had a meeting with an aide to Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-CO). Schroeder was considering introducing legislation that would end the anti-gay armed forces policy. Would he be interested in acknowledging his being gay as a way to build support and to educate the public at large? He had until October to think about it. He promptly began deliberating the pros and cons of going forward.
His phone rang two weeks later.
Congresswoman Schroeder was going to introduce legislation before that summer’s congressional recess. Could he decide sooner? He conferred with his family. Both his mother and sister knew of him being gay, but his brother and father did not. He broke the news to the male members of his immediate family, and then told his entire family that “next week I’m going to tell 13 million of my closest friends” that he was gay. I ask Thorne-Begland how they took the news.
“They thought I was flushing my life down the drain.”
— ∮∮∮ —
On May 19, 1993, he met with ABC’s Ted Koppel in the famed news personality’s office. The reason for the meeting was to discuss their forthcoming public interview. At least during Koppel’s reign as host of the news program, most Nightline interviews were not done in person, but in separate rooms. Producers, however, fretted over Thorne-Begland’s resolve, worrying that he might back out at the last minute. To alleviate their concerns, and to keep their high-profile guest on television, they allowed him to do something that only three Nightline guests have ever been allowed. A seat directly next to Koppel.
When asked how it felt to come out to millions of people, Thorne-Begland reminisces that it “felt like I was having a personal conversation,” a conversation without any obtuse need to cloak his identity.
“It was the first time I was who I was.”
When he returned to Virginia Beach, people shook his hand and patted his back. “There wasn’t a breakdown of morale,” says Thorne-Begland, criticizing the daft accusation purported by those who aimed (and still do) to keep gays out of the military. His commanding officer, following official protocol, implemented the policy that Thorne-Begland was attempting to legally and publicly challenge. When Vice Admiral Anthony A. Less (ret.), then the head of the Naval Aviation at the Pentagon, heard of Thorne-Begland’s cohorts openly supporting their fellow pilot in his decision to publicly announce his homosexuality, he visited them and instructed them to support existing military policy. To undermine their friend and colleague.
The Washington, D.C.-based law firm Crowell & Moring worked pro bono for Thorne-Begland’s legal cause. He estimates that their total expenditures were $2 million, roughly the same amount that the Navy spent to train the Naval Flight Officer. While many service men and women were virtually alone should they legally challenge their discharge, Thorne-Begland arrived in court with five Ivy League-educated attorneys.
In the year-long process to discharge him, Thorne-Begland’s skill sets were re-assigned. He was tapped to “plan the base’s chili cook-off,” as well as to handle hazardous materials. Instead of working a machine that could fly miles in the air, he then worked a Xerox machine for six months. At the proceeding to determine whether he would be discharged, one that he describes as being “similar to a courtroom,” his Navy opponents played the Nightline interview with Koppel. The key supporter that Thorne-Begland’s lawyers called upon was a surprising defender of their client’s position.
One of the early implementers of the policy that had banned gays and lesbians from serving in the military.
Former Assistant Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Korb, had the role of overseeing the continuation of Carter administration policy, codified in the early 1980’s, that explicitly stated that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Korb maintained that the policy, although deliberately written to prevent gays and lesbians from serving in the military, was not meant to be used as a blueprint for a witch-hunt, as it was being used in Thorne-Begland’s case. Korb wanted to urge the panel of three officers (i.e. judges) that would decide the pilot’s military fate to reconsider the Navy’s course. The panel refused to hear his testimony. In six months, Thorne-Begland received his honorable discharge, signed by the Secretary of the Navy.
Afterwards, Thorne-Begland began working as an activist and lobbyist at an early incarnation of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Washington, D.C. His lawyers, still working pro bono, were able to take his case to a U.S. Federal District Court, where Judge Stanley Sporkin (a Reagan appointee) overturned the Navy’s discharge of the Naval Officer. Thorne-Begland became a Navy man once again in late 1993.
He reported for work at Naval Air Systems Command in Crystal City, Virginia. “I showed up for duty as a gun-shy lieutenant,” replete “with a sense of not being wanted.” He began working on a Defense Department prototype program as part of Vice President Al Gore’s “Internet initiative.” President Clinton took office on January 20, 1993. Later that year (around the time that Judge Sporkin ruled in Thorne-Begland’s favor), because of Republican pressure in Congress, Clinton allowed the adoption of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell despite campaign promises to the contrary. What this did was allow the Navy to initiate again discharge Thorne-Begland, proceeding with another board of inquiry.
“They thought I was being a pain in the ass by challenging the system,” says Thorne-Begland. The Navy, according to Thorne-Begland, were gunning for a dishonorable discharge this time and tried to close off proceedings to the press. Ultimately, the Navy gave Thorne-Begland a second honorable discharge.
Around this time, Thorne-Begland was a witness on hearings held by Senate and Congressional committees, notably the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Thorne-Begland found these hearings “horrifying.” He recalls thinking that, “minorities and disadvantaged groups are never going to see redress” in matters of legal errancy. In May 1993, Sen. Strom Thurmond (SC-a Democrat until 1964, and then a subsequent Republican) asked him to seek medical and psychiatric help. Thurmond made this fatuous request during a hearing organized by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) that Thorne-Begland refers to as being one of Nunn’s “dog-and-pony shows,” hearings that aimed to marginalize gays and lesbians. The Chief Deputy Attorney recalls that spectators were deliberately brought into the hearing to openly jeer Thorne-Begland and his cause. Thorne-Begland describes it as “throwing meat into the lion’s den—it was a farce.”
Both Senator Nunn and Senator John Warner (R-VA) even went to the extent to measure the space between urinals aboard Navy vessels to prove that homosexuals could be within twelve inches of their unsuspecting heterosexual counterparts. The buffoonery that Thorne-Begland encountered dismayed him, but invigorated in him a particular interest: the law.
“The legal profession brought a different light” to this matter. Both he and his partner, Michael, wanted to work towards their respective law degrees. Both of them were accepted to the University of Richmond and began their respective legal degree programs in the summer of 1995. In that year his lawyers took his DADT-inspired discharge to the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land maintained the appellate court’s decision that he was lawfully discharged by deciding against hearing the case. The Thorne-Begland’s graduated from the University of Richmond in 1997.
The two were married in an Episcopal ceremony in 1999 (they’ve been together for 18 years total). They have twin children, both a boy and girl. Thorne-Begland says he never wanted to be a “long-term gay activist.” His partner now works at Altria, and he serves as the Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. When both he and Michael sought work after obtaining their degrees from the University of Richmond, they both were upfront with potential employers about who they were. There would be no hiding. “I had already lost one career,” ruminates Thorne-Begland. He tells me that, until 1994, there were no openly gay lawyers in Richmond.
— ∮∮∮ —
December 22, 2010 was a Wednesday, and on this Wednesday, President Obama, in the presence of a very voluminous and emotional crowd, signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a repeal that will take full effect on the 20th of September. In the first row of the ceremony was a key instrument in getting to this historical moment—Tracy Thorne-Begland.
Speaking before the signing, the President remarked:
“No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military—regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance — because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love.”
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network estimates that 12,500 servicemembers have been discharged since the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A think tank at the University of California estimates that the total cost to American taxpayers to discharge over 12,000 servicemembers is about $363.8 million.
“I was the lucky one,” says Thorne-Begland, speaking of the support, legal and emotional, that he received in the years that have passed since he came out to the military. There were those, however, for whom the armed forces was the only way for them to escape the small town, or the dilapidated neighborhood, or the troubled home. For them, the armed forces were “their only way” out, says Thorne-Begland. It was disastrous for them when their sexuality emerged, and they were kicked out from the refuge that they had sought. Thorne-Begland pauses, looks down to the floor; then looks back at me.
“It was heart-breaking” for them.
I ask him if he has ever thought about his children joining the military. “I hope they do,” he says. Years ago, he joined the Navy believing that service to your country fulfilled a higher purpose. “I still believe it today.”
But he also believes that there are politicians that will continue to use the marginalizing of gays and lesbians to their political advantage. One such person is the Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, who some feel will make either a gubernatorial or senatorial run in the future. “He’s already stood in the way,” says Thorne-Begland, speaking of Cuccinelli’s urging of public colleges and universities to overturn policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In addition, Thorne-Begland criticizes Cuccinelli as being “against hate crime laws” and “employment discrimination” protections. Thorne-Begland fears that he, and others, will continue to stand “on the backs of gays and lesbians as long as he [and they] need to progress” politically.
So I ask him what can gays and lesbians do to counter those who wish to block their legal rights and privileges. “Live an open and honest life.” He thinks that as “more people come out and contribute to their community,” the more others will see that being gay, something that means so much for those who feel they must repress who they are, means so exceptionally little in the great unfolding drama of human existence.
I ask him what can those who are not gay but recognize and wish to bolster the rights of their fellow citizens, what can they do? “Be supportive,” says Thorne-Begland.
Before I leave his office, I realize something. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell comes, in part, as a result of him. It was his will to assert not just his convictions and principles, but the convictions and principles of the grand notion that we so poetically call The American Way of Life. Appearing before millions of people, he did something that George Orwell famously said can become nothing less than a revolutionary act: telling the truth.
Tracy Thorne-Begland walks me to door of the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. We shake hands and part ways. His shake, firm yet humble, is my lasting impression of a man who has helped fight against an entity that few have ever bested—the American armed forces. He and other Americans did so with a remarkable patience and astounding perseverance.
To say nothing of the service that he and others gave to their country, a service that, after the 20th of September, history shall denote as being remarkable in more ways than one.
Correction: A previous version of this article mis-attributed Senator Nunn’s political party affiliation. Sen. Nunn was a conservative-leaning Democrat and not a Republican, as previously named.