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.
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 where he flew A-6 intruder attack planes for three years.
As much as he loved what he was doing, Thorne-Begland was struggling with the secret of his sexual orientation. He felt a moral obligation to be honest about himself, though he knew that the military banned homosexuals. At the time, incoming President Bill Clinton said he would challenge the ban, and debate over the policy had begun.
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, placing himself in the center of the national spotlight.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
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 television. He was reinstated after filing suit in federal court. He was discharged again in 1995, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal.
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 University of Richmond School of Law. 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. 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.
Change on the Horizon
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.
Former law Dean John R. Pagan, a 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.
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.
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 have great respect for the Navy. I hope to be back there one day.”
This article by Andy Taylor originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Richmond Law magazine. Read the full article.