Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Officer Thorne-Begland decided to come out at the height of the Clinton-era gays in the military debate. He appeared on ABC’s Nightline on May 19, 1992, and revealed to anchor Ted Koppel that he was both a homosexual and a military officer. The following year, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – rather than Clinton’s promised repeal of the ban on homosexuals in the military – became law, and Thorne-Begland was honorably discharged. He was reinstated in 1993 after filing suit in federal court, but was discharged again in 1995, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.
Twenty years ago, Thorne-Begland put a public face on the dilemma of gays serving in the military. He had 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 and flew A-6 intruder attack planes for three years. He wrestled with having to lie about his sexual orientation and eventually came out to his fellow fliers.
“It was a complete non-issue,” says Thorne-Begland. “Everyone was supportive of me.” Thorne-Begland continued flying with his squadron, and his fellow pilots flew with him without a second thought.
Both his mother and sister knew he was gay at the time, 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 on TV to tell 13 million of my closest friends” that he was gay. “They thought I was flushing my life down the drain.”
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 need to cloak his identity. “It was the first time I was who I was.”
When he returned to Virginia Beach, fellow soldiers shook his hand and patted his back. “There wasn’t a breakdown of morale,” says Thorne-Begland, criticizing the accusation by those who aimed to keep gays out of the military. However, his commanding officer, following official protocol, had to implement the strict policy that Thorne-Begland was attempting to challenge publicly.
Although his efforts at the time were ultimately unsuccessful, during his legal battles Thorne-Begland developed a fascination with the law. After spending some time working with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington DC as a spokesperson for their Coming Out Project in the early 90s, Tracy went back to school and received his law degree from the University of Richmond in 1997. Currently, he is a Deputy Commonwealth Attorney for the city of Richmond, dealing with Major Crimes. His life partner, Michael Thorne-Begland, also followed Tracy to Richmond and enrolled in law school.
It is easy to contrast Tracy’s costly honesty with that of Florida politician Mark Foley. Tracy grew up in Palm Beach, Florida, and used to see Foley with his boyfriend vacationing at Little Palm Key. Foley became a family friend, and Foley was supportive of Tracy during his travails in the nearly 1990s. When Foley voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, Thorne-Begland had an angry conversation with him, raking him over the coals for such lack of integrity, for taking the road of political survival and hypocrisy.
When President Obama signed the repeal of DADT last December, sitting in the front row was Tracy Thorne-Begland. It was a historic moment, and Thorne-Begland was one of the principal players that made that turnabout possible. We all owe this man, big time.
Tracy with President Obama and life partner Michael.