DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of The Tom Swann Story: For A Greater Good


Author (or Editor):  Tom Swann (Foreword by Patricia Neal Warren)

Title: The Tom Swann Story: For A Greater Good

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Pgymalion

Date: 2003

ISBN:  1-888292-15-6

Series Name:

Physical description: softbound, 218 pgs (with a color photo insert of the green “infamous alligator doll” – hence Tom’s nickname of “Gator”)

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL:  gays in the military


One of my own observations about the military gay ban is that its effects are not just limited to those in uniform. My own story illustrates that principle perhaps by turning it on its head. Tom Swann describes his years of harassment as a civilian employee in the Navy. He had voluntary left the Marine Corps at the end of his enlistment in 1980 apparently without incident.

Anyone who has experienced a battle with this likes to relive his struggle in detail, just as I do, and here Tom Swann goes through his battles and appeals in even more detail than I did. He seems focused on them. 

A lot of fine points come out, however. Starting off, one notices the graphic on his back cover, “No One Signs Up for Boot Camp to Get a Date.”  His blurb on Lambda Rising says, Swann states: “I am the last federal employee to have his access to classified information challenged by the government based on being a homosexual. Our ACLU case resulted in the Secretary of the Department of the Navy adding sexual orientation protection for all civilian employees, over 250,000 workers.”  In fact, President Clinton issued an Executive Order protecting the right of civilian DOD employees to have security clearances regardless of sexual orientation in 1995, and even Les Aspin had been reluctant on this point, according to Swann.  Remember, of course, that recently, in early 2004, OSC (Office of Special Counsel) head Scott J. Bloch (apparently a Bush political appointee) tried to undermine protections for gay civilian civil service workers. (For details, visit GLOBE.) Another little detail is that the initial provision to stop asking sexual orientation was a rider on the Family Leave and Medical Leave Act in early 1993 (p. 85). A more critical point has to do with the Campaign for Military Service (the organization which predated SLDN), which, as Swann reports, would have settled for a policy that allowed private telling off base but not publicity-seeking statements (p. 201).

President Clinton’s May 27, 2003 CBS This Morning Town Hall Meeting statement (before his policy announcement at Fort McNair on July 19) bears repeating (p.d., p. 167):

“There have always been homosexuals in the military. The question is whether they should be kicked out not because of what they do, but because of who they are. My view is people should be judged on their conduct. That does not imply that the rest of society agrees with their lifestyle, but you just accept the fact that in every country there and always have been homosexuals who are capable of honoring their country, laying down their lives for their country, and serving. And they should be judged based on their behavior, not their lifestyles. We almost have a compromise here. The issue is a narrow one. Should you be able to acknowledge, if asked, that you are homosexual? And if you don’t do anything wrong, should you be booted out of the military?”

Now a good part (but not all) of Swann’s troubles at his civilian job had to do with his public activism in fighting the ban against his friends or brothers in uniform. This brings up a couple of major trains of thought for me.

Let me back up a minute. I got to know Mr. Swann by phone in 1995-1996, when I was working on my own (first) “Do Ask Do Tell” book (while still in Virginia). He sent me some personal papers, which I still have, and his book does follow the personal papers pretty closely. He shared with me some of his medical (HIV-related) experiences also, and these are in his book. It does appear that he has benefited from the enormous improvements in medical interventions (expensive anti-retroviral prescription drugs) available since the early 1990s.

Then, let’s ponder his nebulous subtitle, “For a Greater Good.” That aphorism can mean different things.  In his case, the phrase partly refers to the collective experience that military service offers. The most common interpretation, though, perhaps is group-oriented political activism: the greater good is served if oppressed peoples and groups are given remedial attention. Now I would add that being oppressed does not give license to do wrong. But the phrase may also refer to circumscribing individual freedoms for collective “good.”  We see this in debating family values and various other ethical dilemmas, as I delve into next. (He does say “a” greater good, not “the” greater good.)

Tom Swann may have rightly believed that his off-the-job political activism to support lifting the gay military ban was guaranteed by the First Amendment. In fact, he would get “laid off” and then reinstated in subsequent litigation, before retiring. Federal employees often do have legally protected free speech rights, that may be abridged by security concerns or conflict of interest laws like the Hatch Act. Military servicemembers have fewer such rights, which is one of the underlying problems in “don’t tell.” Let me relate my own experience. Recall that my own book starts with my being thrown out of a civilian college (William and Mary) in 1961 for “telling,” with a rationale (sexual “privacy” in the dorms) that resembles arguments Sam Nunn used to support the ban. Ironically, I would serve in the Army 1968-1970 without incident, and become involved in my own way in the political struggle over the ban in the 1990s. At the time, I was working for a life insurance company in Arlington, VA that specialized in selling to military officers. I felt that my public activity to lift the ban (including writing a book) would create an ethical conflict of interest. For example, military officers often came to the premises and could have recognized me. There was at least a theoretical possibility that I would know confidential information about them (like HIV status). At least one lawyer (at Covington and Burling) for one of the servicemembers challenging the ban (Pentagon “geekalator” Paul Thomasson) agreed (as he called me a “John Grisham recurring character”). During that period I engaged in some AOL message board debates about working for the military as a civilian and “biting the hand that feeds you.” Fortunately, the company was bought by a larger insurance company in Minneapolis, and I applied for a transfer to the larger new company (diluting the significance of the military customers) and got it. Two years later, my mother needed lifesaving surgery. I am an only child. I could not have moved back without recreating the conflict on interest. In some scenarios, she might not have gotten the surgery unless I gave up the job (and the prospect of retirement income). That did not happen, but it could have, and this example shows how military policy can affect civilians.

Let me come back to the most important question that this book poses: where does homohatred (as Navy pilot Tracy Thorne called it) come from? My 1998 piece on this is a start, but we can reiterate a few things here. First, there is a natural social propinquity: people tend to affiliate with those like them and, in many cases, perceive those who are “different” (or “special”) as threats or enemies. The hit WB series “Smallville” demonstrates this point. Some people will perceive those who are “different” as inferior because they need to feel superior to someone (so well demonstrated by the first episode in 2004 of TheWB drama “Jack and Bobby.”)

Military service, however, exploits the notion that people should sacrifice for others—particularly, in most cases, that men should sacrifice for women and children. In the days of the draft, the “reward” upon finishing one’s service obligation was the opportunity to raise a family. That is another sacrifice. The man is tamed and socialized by his wife: courtship, marriage, consummation, fatherhood. The man is expected to remain sexually interested in one woman (as she ages) lifetime for the sake of the children and for fair social stability. That, at least, is conservative sociology. Now male homosexuality, in particular, seems to mock the whole process, particularly when it brags that it can be pleasurable to enjoy one’s own submission or abasement—for the expressive purpose, perhaps, of establishing new rules for male social hierarchy. Of course, there is much more than this, but that particular aspect is one item that men, especially those living in close quarters in a military environment, may pick up on. That may be even more true now than during Swann’s struggles in the 80s and early 90s, since the Internet has made “private choices” more public in their potential cultural significance. Gay men are also seen as cheating on family responsibility, although this is partly the result of the circularity of homophobia—gay men often are not allowed to have such responsibility, and that is part of the debate on gay marriage.  This last observation affect me; as an only child and “sissy boy” during youth, some people feel that I owe my family a biological legacy (children) for getting “off the hook” for my own personal weaknesses. “Loyalty to blood!” (as in Jake 2.0). I spent an awful lot of my early adult years meeting my own functional needs (no one else’s) with “coming out”: as a moral matter, you get to do that for a while, but not forever.

Tom Swann, in fact, writes on p. 51 about his teenage adopted son from El Salvador. I am surprised that he does not make more of this in his narrative, as it could have enriched his story and taken it into bugger areas—“family responsibility.” In the mid 1990s, I read another book Getting Simon, by Dr. Kenneth Morgan (Bramble Books, 1995), about his own adoption process in Maryland. I would like to know much more about Mr. Swann’s experience with parenting.

I do view this book in terms of media presentation, especially movies and dramatic television shows, the world of Everwood, Smallville, Jack and Bobby, all the way to Queer as Folk.











Related: Randy Shilts: Conduct Unbecoming;  Robert Le Blanc: A Marine’s Diary


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