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O.C. Reservists Join Challenge of Gays Policy

July 29, 1993|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last April, in his ninth year of duty in the Air Force reserves, Staff Sgt. Harold (Mac) McCarthy stood up during an Orange County Republican Party debate on gays in the military and announced what his family and friends already knew--that he is gay.

When he reported for duty a few days later with the 414th Medical Service Squadron at March Air Force Base, McCarthy was "excused from participating" with his reserve unit because of the existing ban on gays in the military, he said. His commander told him his enlistment would be allowed to expire on its due date in early August.

1st Lt. Kenneth Osborn, an Air Force reservist from Placentia, kept his private life secret until this week, when he also publicly revealed that he is gay. His scheduled promotion at the end of the year to the rank of captain is now in jeopardy, he said.

Taking on a fight that may require more strength of character than any tour of military duty, McCarthy and Osborn, both from Orange County, are challenging the Pentagon's newest policy on gays in the military by becoming part of a federal lawsuit against the government.

"Putting my name on the lawsuit was not easy; it was not easy at all," said McCarthy, a 31-year-old Stanton resident. "But it's not just for me or the others that have their names on the lawsuit. Somebody needs to do this. Somebody needs to take some risks for the greater good."

Osborn, 29, echoed his commitment to the lawsuit during a separate interview.

"I am proud of who I am and what I have done," Osborn said. "You are worried every day that somebody is going to find out (you are gay) and kick you out. We want to not have to look over our shoulders every five minutes."

Initially optimistic that President Clinton would lift the ban against gays in the military, McCarthy now believes the new policy--which prevents military commanders from investigating gays and lesbians as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret and don't engage in homosexual conduct--could actually be worse.

"It's a civil rights issue. I cannot understand how, in this day and age, we can put something down in writing that says it's OK to discriminate" against gays and lesbians, said McCarthy, who spent most of his time in the reserves as an operating room technician.

The lawsuit--the first to challenge Clinton's policy, which has the support of two two key congressional committees--was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights group.

The suit claims the new policy violates gays' constitutional rights to equal justice and free speech.

Of the seven gay and lesbian members of the armed forces included in the lawsuit, five agreed to disclose their identities--some of them revealing their sexual orientation for the first time.

Osborn, an 11-year reservist who now serves with the Army Reserve's 304th Material Management Center in Los Angeles, said only his family and those closest to him knew he was gay before the lawsuit was filed.

In fact, Osborn said, it was only three years ago--well into his career in the reserves--that he realized he is gay and began worrying about the ramifications of being "outed." Osborn said he and other gays work even harder than most soldiers to prove they are compatible with military service.

But the debate in recent months over gays in the military stirred him into action, Osborn said.

When he heard that civil rights lawyers were preparing the lawsuit, Osborn said he volunteered to have his name placed on the petition, not just for himself, but also for gay active duty military personnel who depend on their military paychecks and cannot afford to take on a public fight.

"I know everybody cannot jump up and do this, and I am doing it for them," Osborn said. "I wanted to become part of this movement. . . .

Despite revealing his sexual orientation in April, McCarthy's said he struggled with the decision to become a part of the lawsuit and elevate his public involvement in the fight for gay rights.

His trepidation was reinforced somewhat, he said, by the barrage of telephone calls from news reporters and a near-sleepless night that followed the filing of the lawsuit. But he said he is committed to the cause.

"In very many ways, I am fighting for the country," McCarthy said. "I am fighting for equality for all men and women."

Osborn and McCarthy both fear their military careers are threatened, but hope the lawsuit will allow them to continue to serve in the military reserves.

McCarthy said that when he first acknowledged he is gay, his fellow reservists expressed their support. And he expects that won't change.

"I am an optimist. I expect sometime in the future that I will be able to return" to active reserve duty, he said. "I really feel I would be welcome. Everyone from basic enlisted members to a 'full bird' colonel told me I would be welcome back."

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