SAN FRANCISCO — The tall doors in the somber halls of the War Memorial Veterans Building give no indication that anything unusual happens here.
On the doors are names of American Legion posts--Golden Gate Post No. 40, San Francisco Police Post No. 456, Hellenic Post No. 230.
But cross the lobby of the massive gray granite structure, climb the marble steps to a second-floor room and discover members of one post planning a demonstration in the event President Clinton failed to lift the ban against homosexuals in the military. (That demonstration is being held here today in response to Clinton's announcement Monday of an easing of the ban but continuation of most Armed Services procedures regarding homosexuals.)
A speaker at the post meeting urges members to write congressmen in support of a Navy man held in Leavenworth Prison on sodomy charges. Members could buy $12 T-shirts proclaiming a gay Air Force activist's epitaph: "They Gave Me A Medal for Killing Two Men and A Discharge for Loving One." Information is provided about upgrading military discharges for homosexuality.
This is the monthly meeting of Alexander Hamilton Post 448, so named because some historians argue that Hamilton's letters indicate he was homosexual.
It is the only gay group affiliated with the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. (The Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America has 44 chapters and about 7,500 members nationwide, but is not affiliated with a traditional veterans group.)
Spurred by controversy over Clinton's anticipated action, membership in the Hamilton Post has jumped from 200 to more than 300 in six weeks. The members, who have served in conflicts ranging from World War I to the Persian Gulf, include about 30 lesbians and 100 veterans outside California.
About 50 showed up at the regular monthly meeting last Thursday night, a day before Clinton said he would announce his decision about regulations for gays in the military.
"I feel good here. Number one, you don't have to worry about being attacked," says former Air Force Staff Sgt. Maurice Hardy. "You can be yourself among people of like mind."
The crew-cut, bearded Hardy, who spent eight years on active duty and 10 in the reserves beginning in 1969, also belongs to a VFW chapter.
His experience in the VFW illustrates the difficulties for some gay veterans in traditional organizations. "There are quite a few homophobic people," he says. "One of our officers started shouting obscenities because he thought we were going to let gays into the group, even though I was there."
Former Sgt. Diana Vasquez says she joined the Hamilton Post because other Legion chapters are too male-oriented. The Army Teletype operator was discharged in 1983, ending a seven-year career, when she developed emotional problems and a subsequent military investigation found a tape in which she said she thought she was a lesbian.
"They (other chapters) are old-boy networks," says Vasquez, who helped set up security communications during the 1980 presidential campaign. "Alexander Hamilton accepts women. It's a younger post. They want to move for change."
Other members say the post provides a haven unavailable in liberal-leaning gay civic groups.
"I have experiences not many people understand, particularly in San Francisco with the large pacifist population," says Navy veteran Robert White, who supervised mechanics working on nuclear reactors on a guided missile cruiser.
"It's important to support your feelings and what you did in the military because you're proud of it. I was ready to dedicate 20 years of my life to it."
Although members of the post are united by homosexuality, their experiences vary widely. Some hid their sexual orientation for fear of reprisal; some were more open but discreet and were protected by their commanders; and some were discharged.
White, 29, graduated from Corona Del Mar High School in 1983. He was in the Persian Gulf in 1988 when U.S. warships sank Iranian navy ships and attacked Iranian oil platforms.
"Everyone knew I was gay," he says. "There was a little gay community of about 30 people. It was no secret. It just wasn't officially recognized. The whole philosophy in the Navy is as long as they don't have to deal with it, you can do anything you want. As long as you're not caught having sex with someone on ship, they can ignore it."
But worrying about being discharged was causing stress, White says. He felt he couldn't work up to potential.
So on a warm, clear morning in Subic Bay in the Philippines, just before his second trip to the Persian Gulf, White moved a few feet away from other crew members on deck and asked his department head for assurances that his sexual orientation wouldn't affect his career. The conference lasted only a few seconds.
"He said, 'You're a good petty officer, but if you say certain words to me, my hands are tied. I have to send you home. So do you want to stay on board or go home?'
"I said, 'I want to stay.'