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Gay Sailor Returns to Duty

Gay Sailor Returns to Duty

By John E. Yang
The Washington Post

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.

For nearly two years at Moffett Field Naval Air Station here, Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Meinhold taught sonar crews on P-3 Orion aircraft how to hunt submarines.

Thursday morning, he returned to Patrol Squadron 31 after a seven-month hiatus and said he was intent on teaching the nation that homosexuals can serve ably in the armed forces despite the long-standing policy against their inclusion.

"I have to go and prove that all the assertions the Pentagon made against gays serving in the military are wrong," Meinhold said in an interview at his home in nearby Palo Alto Thursday. "I'm the test case. There's not any room for mistakes on my part. ... I can't jeopardize the gays and lesbians who follow."

Hours later, Meinhold, 30, a 12-year Navy veteran with a strong service record, became the only man returned to military service after publicly declaring his homosexuality under the military's mandatory-discharge policy.

Surrounded by cameras and reporters, Meinhold arrived at Moffett wearing civilian clothes and carrying his Navy dress blues on a hanger and his cap and regulation black shoes in a brown-paper shopping bag. He passed through the main gate at 8:10 a.m. PST, 10 minutes late, after an impromptu news conference.

Glancing at his watch with a black face and pink triangle, a symbol of gay pride, he declared: "It's time to get to work."

While Meinhold's reinstatement does not mean that courts ultimately will invalidate the military's ban on homosexuals, it is a powerful symbol in gays' struggle for civil rights and acceptance in American society.

Thursday, Meinhold sought to play down his role. "I'm doing the same sort of thing that gay and lesbian people have had to do all along," he said.

He had been away from his regular job since the day last May when he declared his homosexuality on ABC's "World News Tonight." He was reassigned to computer-programming duties before being honorably discharged Aug. 12.

Last month, he sued for reinstatement, and last week a U.S. District Court judge ordered the Navy to give Meinhold his old job until the case is settled. The judge repeated the order Monday when Moffett officials balked. Another hearing on the case is scheduled next week.

Meinhold said his experiences during his involuntary leave gave him "a higher opinion of people." He said he has received encouragement from strangers and co-workers.

Meinhold told of one chief petty officer who approached him to apologize for anti-gay remarks that the officer might have made. Meinhold said the chief said that Meinhold's disclosure had made him rethink his attitude toward homosexuals.

"The only negative response I got was that I got kicked out of my job," Meinhold said.

Meinhold, who quit high school at 17 to join the Navy rather than repeat 11th grade, said his sexual orientation was "relatively well known" among co-workers and superiors but not officially known until his television appearance.

Meinhold said he decided to speak out after hearing news reports that the Naval Investigative Service was trying to find and discharge gay sailors based in Japan. "It was against everything I was proud to be as an American -- fairness and equality," he said. "They were treating American soldiers like enemy soldiers."