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Gay sailor Keith Meinhold, who fought for his career, is still vigilant about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

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BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Keith Meinhold of Miami Shores doesn't want to be known simply as the ``gay sailor.'' But he is gay, he did serve in the Navy, and he played a pivotal public role in the events leading up to today's rekindled debate over whether gays can serve openly in the military.

Keith_Meinhold_COVER In 1992, at a time when the Navy was aggressively rooting out gay servicemen and women, Petty Officer Meinhold outed himself on national television. He was dismissed from the Navy, challenged his dismissal in court, and won reinstatement, ending up on the cover of Newsweek.

Within a year of his TV appearance, newly elected President Bill Clinton negotiated a compromise -- ``don't ask, don't tell'' -- enabling gays to serve as long as they didn't say they were gay.

Meinhold remained in the Navy under ``don't ask, don't tell'' until he retired in 1996. Nobody asked him if he was gay -- they already knew -- and he didn't discuss it with superiors. Now 47, he lives with life partner Steven Weiss and does marketing/graphic design for a Coconut Grove hedge fund.Q: You enlisted at age 17, while still a high school student. Why?

A: I joined the Navy before graduation. I wasn't doing well; I hated high school. I knew college wasn't an option. The Navy was available to me. It was either that or continue working in a furniture warehouse in Stuart.

Q: Were you out at the time?

A: I didn't know that I was gay. Growing up in a small town in Stuart, my definition of what a gay person was was different than what others had. I thought they had to wear dresses and ride around on a motorcycle. That wasn't me. I was a typical boy who liked to go boating and sailing. I'm still an avid sailor. I had feelings I now identify as gay, but I thought everyone else felt the same way. I was very naive in my early Navy career.

Q: When did you realize you're gay? A: What drove it home was deployment overseas with the Navy to foreign countries, Thailand and the Philippines. My fellow sailors visited bordellos, and I had no interest. I thought, ``Why don't I have the same excitement about visiting a whorehouse in Thailand like my colleagues?'' My colleagues referred to the Philippines as an adult Disneyland. That never occured to me.

Q: Did you know anyone else in the Navy who was gay? A: I had a colleague; we flew together for at least a year, and he was always very circumspect and private about his private life. He had a civilian roommate, and he finally admitted to me that he was gay. I wasn't prepared to respond at that time -- I told him I was bisexual. I was still sitting on the fence at that time.

He took me to my first gay bar. His boyfriend at the time was a civilian -- he could have been a football player -- and I was so nervous, my beer kept frothing up because I was shaking so much. Q: What did you know at the time about gays in the military? A: There was a witch hunt going on on the USS Independence and the Blue Ridge. The Blue Ridge was the flagship for the Pacific fleet. I thought, ``I don't want to be part of an organization that was defending the rights of Americans and our citizens, and would do just the opposite to citizens serving in the military.'' It discouraged me. . . . Senior officials were not addressing the issue, they were stonewalling the issue. Good people were being discharged.

Q: How did you become involved as an activist?

A: I was part of an organization that helped find jobs for sailors being kicked out of the Navy. Once the witch hunts started on the Blue Ridge and the Independence, it overwhelmed our resources. Out of that investigation, there was about 45 sailors dismissed. They were not only allowed to ask, they were actively seeking out gays and lesbians. I decided at that point, with resources being overwhelmed, I was willing to sacrifice my Navy career to stop the witch hunt and maybe address the Navy policy. I fully expected that I was going to be kicked out of the Navy and that would be the end of my career.

Q: At the time, you volunteered for the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign. How did you end up giving an interview on May 19, 1992, on ABC's World News Tonight? A: ABC got wind of the witch hunts and contacted HRC to ask if they could reach any gay military members. I was working with HRC with regard to people being kicked out. They asked if I'd be willing to discuss what was happening on the Blue Ridge and the Independence. I knew it would be the end of my career, but I was happy to do it.

. . . I was extraordinarily nervous going into the interview. When I get nervous, I yawn. I yawned throughout the interview.

Q: How comfortable were you in being publicly identified as gay?

A: About 1989, at the San Francisco gay pride parade, if somebody pointed a camera, I turned the other way. I was still on active duty.

A few years later, I took a few of my Navy friends to the parade. They were straight, but enjoyed it more than I did.

The third year I went, I actually marched in the parade -- with the American Legion group.

The fourth parade I went to, I was actually one of the grand marshals.

Q: Three months after the ABC News interview, the Navy discharged you and you sued to be reinstated. What happened next?

A: It all was about circumstance. At that time, presidential candidate Bill Clinton had made a promise at some college campus that he would lift the ban. The turning point was the presidential race. That was what caused it to become a hot-button issue.

I had the tiger by the tail, and I couldn't let go. I took it as my military duty that I had to fight with every ounce of my being. In the military, you pursue something and you pursue it doggedly until you declare victory.

Q: The courts reinstated you at the time because there was no law prohibiting gays from serving. What happened next?

A: Previous to my case, it was just a military policy that could be changed by executive order. There were members in Congress, including Democrats -- particularly Sam Nunn (then-chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services) -- who were against lifting the order. They were going to make it [Clinton's] Waterloo. They were going to teach him he couldn't change all the things he wanted to change. Sam Nunn wanted to demonstrate his power and position to the new president.

Q: Clinton agreed to a compromise now known as ``don't ask, don't tell.'' It became law in 1994, and the military is now prohibited from asking recruits if they are gay or investigating suspected homosexual activity. Still, if someone says he or she is gay, they are discharged. As an out gay man, how could you continue to serve? A: I discussed this with my commanding officer. I couldn't deny what was history. He said, ``Just don't say you're gay.'' I said, ``Got it.'' As long as I didn't say, ``I'm gay,'' I was all right. If I went on a news program, they would never ask me if I'm gay. Everybody knew it, so it just didn't come up as a question.

Q: About 13,000 gay and lesbian service members have left the military since passage of don't ask, don't tell. President Barack Obama says he is committed to repealing the law. . . . Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen called repeal ``the right thing to do.'' Do you think it will happen soon? A: My chief complaint about the proposal is looking at studying it for another year. That's very shortsighted and ignores even what the Pentagon's own research says. In 1993, the Rand [Corp.] report indicated the ban could be lifted [then] with little-to-zero negative effect and would actually enhance military readiness by retaining a large number of individuals.

Q: In 1996, you retired from the Navy. Why? A: In 1996, we were in the Gulf. It was a drawdown of the war, and the military was offering early retirements. I was tired of looking over my shoulder. I knew no matter how high my marks, I would never be promoted. It made practical sense. My pension was prorated, and I still had all my benefits. I said it's time for a new career. Time to move on.

I can't say I was tired of it, but I didn't want to keep being the gay sailor. Everywhere I went, I was Keith Meinhold, the gay sailor.

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Above, Keith Meinhold and partner Steven Weiss at home near Miami Shores. Photos by MARICE COHN BAND / Miami Herald Staff

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