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Sailor Speaks Out


It took two years of unconscionable abuse as a Navy dog handler in Bahrain before Petty Officer Third Class Joseph Rocha spoke out about being harassed. However, his openness about being hazed by his fellow sailors ended up getting him kicked out of the service under "don't ask, don't tell." Since going public with his story in June, the 23-year-old has become an outspoken proponent for the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members. Leading up to the U.S. Senate's yet-to-be scheduled hearing on repealing the 16-year-old policy, Rocha is finding his voice in fighting the ban -- especially because he hopes to rejoin the Navy eventually. Rocha opens up to about the hazing, his decision to tell, and life as a full-time political science major at a Catholic university.

Why did you enter the Navy?
You know, it was my sophomore year [of high school]. Having grown up amongst violence and drug abuse, well. not myself ... just growing up in a violent household, I was confident that I wanted to dedicate my life to public service. And then my sophomore year, 9/11 occurred and I kind of decided my direction regarding my public service. I knew then that it would start with military service.

What was your experience in Bahrain from 2005 to 2007?
Well, when I first got there I was one amongst several hundred military police officers, and at first it was great. I was respected by my peers, I trained with the Marine Corps, I was respected by them, and my sexuality was never, never remotely questioned. It wasn't until about six weeks in that I decided I wanted to become a part of a more elite, a much smaller unit of only two dozen, that I started coming under question in regards to my sexuality. And that came about through the normal procedure of trying to earn my place amongst their unit, but unbeknownst to me I was walking into an environment that condoned and propagated hazing before I even got there. And the difference with me was that hazing took its focus, as ordered by my chief, was specifically based on my sexuality. So because I trained with the Marine Corps, because I wasn't interested in their conversations of sexual intercourse, it became a question of, Are you a homosexual? Why aren't you interested in these things? And then the hazing demonstrated their intent of punishing me for what they considered to be my being a homosexual.

What kind of hazing did you have to endure?
Well, it started with just, like I said, just started with normal stuff, and it escalated to being hosed down in uniform to being forced to act out scenarios, homosexual scenarios on tape with military attack dogs, to being hog-tied or tied to a chair and left in a dog kennel with feces. These are the things that are documented by a naval report into this and a larger case of abuse in the kennel.

What was the final straw that brought you to come out in 2007 to your commanding officer?

Well, when I got to the Naval Academy preparatory school I was on my way to my dream of becoming a Naval Academy graduate and a Marine Corps officer, and at first I was full motivation. I got there and I decided these people weren't going to take from me my dream and that terrible leadership I lived under was going to be an example or more encouragement to become the kind of leader that fits the core values of the military.

But within three months there it really kind of weighed on me how much service had been rewarded in the Middle East with that kind of abuse, the death of my mentor, her suicide, and more, so I had to reflect on what did a life and a career under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have to offer me given the way I was treated in the Middle East. That was it. I realized there was no honor or dignity in that policy, and I decided I would resign, not really knowing what would come of that. And with the intent of fighting the policy and civilian world.

Who was Chief Petty Officer Michael Toussaint?
Toussaint is the one who ordered most of all the abuse and he is the one that indoctrinated the sailor in my unit as to my being a homosexual. He literally told them, "This kid is gay."

He knew about the hazing, did nothing -- there was even a naval investigation that recognized 93 incidents of misconduct -- and yet he was promoted?
The report concludes that there was at least 93 counts of abuse under his command and 27 violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is our constitution. And he was promoted in rank and position twice. And then after an inquiry by Congressman [Joe] Sestak to the secretary of the Navy as to how this could have happened, this year September 11, the Navy has decided to force-retire him, presumptively with full benefits and allow him to keep his rank. So essentially, nothing but ask him to leave.

According to the Associated Press, you said you would have preferred to have seen him court-martialed, right?
Absolutely. I mean the thing is that we wanted to make an example that there is justice in the Navy. And anyone who would have committed one act of violation of the UCMJ would be court-martialed. The reported suggested he violated 27 counts of the UCMJ, and he won't stand court-martial. So, yeah, it is very disappointing.

Why do you think he wasn't court-martialed?
We presume that it is because of his rank and because of the time that lapsed since this abuse has occurred, but by no means do we think that this abuse hasn't continued to happen throughout his leadership since Bahrain.

Are you surprised by the media attention you have received?
Am I surprised? No, I think people, conservatives and liberals, no matter where people stand on gay rights, taxpayers are disgusted by what their taxes have been funding, which is this leader, this military leader, and the way he treated a young man who simply wanted to serve in the Middle East, who did not come across as homosexual and who was never caught doing anything homosexual. The reason I've gone through with it and why I've tried to be a full-time student and continuing the advocacy is because I feel so strongly about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." When reporters ask me, "What do you want to come of this for you," I say for me, nothing, because I'm not there anymore. But I am very, very conscious of how many service members serve under this policy and can't speak up against it like I could in Bahrain. So that is why I dedicate myself to this repeal.

What have been some of the surrealistic experiences that have come about since you were discharged?
Well, definitely the march on Washington. Definitely the opportunity to dialogue across the country, being invited to universities and law schools, fund-raisers. Really, the chance to be a significant impact on the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" has been the most surrealist thing, for sure. Also, I think the most intimating thing at first was that the national platform comes with the exposure to the opposition, and I think at first that was very intimidating. But then I realized what a great opportunity it is simply to dispel some of the most common misconceptions and weak arguments there are for upholding this policy and this kind of abuse.

How was your experience at the National March for Equality?
It was incredible. I had never been to Washington. Suddenly I was offered to go to Washington, and not only was it amazing to be part of this march that was just around 200,000 people, but I did have all access. I was amongst the most influential people in our national LGBT community, and I think that was phenomenal. Also my opportunity, several times now, to spend time with and advocate with Stuart Milk [Harvey Milk's nephew] has really made an impact on me.

The University of San Diego is a private Catholic university in a politically conservative country, and speaking from my own experience there, gay students tend to hide their sexuality. Why did you decide to attend USD?
Specifically because of its focus on dignity and social justice, and that was my appeal to the university. Also, because I had to choose between University of San Francisco and USD -- I enjoyed my upbringing in the church, so I had to choose between USF and USD. The media pace started to pick up right before this semester, so I realized that the advocacy, while well-received in San Francisco, wouldn't be as effective as it is here in San Diego where these are military members -- these are military veterans, military leadership, these are the conservatives. This is where I had to be. And I have actually received a surprising welcome from the university. Many of the staff have told me that they are proud of me. The monsignor has asked me to sit down with him for coffee. And the university has actually invited me to sit on two panels here this week.

How do you reconcile your Catholic identity and your LGBT advocacy?
I am really comfortable with it. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have never chosen this level of inequality and hatred that the community receives. In regards to my Catholic faith, I don't know, I feel just as much a member of this church, and I don't have any qualms with my sexuality and my spirituality.

USD is a school that has seen reported hate crimes skyrocket fivefold from 2006 to 2008, and some of those individuals were targeted because of their sexual orientation, and you were hazed because of your sexuality. I understand you are working on federal legislative reform, but do you think there is anything you can do to help your school community?
I think the first step was being recognized by the school. I think the school recognizing me on the level to allow me to sit on panels really sets a new example for its student body. We are equal; we are accepted for our ideals and our work. I think that is pretty groundbreaking in of itself. I think that opportunity to have LGBT members of this student body to be able to listen to my advocacy at school sanctioned events also should hopefully make them feel a whole lot more comfortable and hopefully diminish some, if there is still some homophobia here at the university, hopefully to diminish that a little bit. And I do plan on working closely with the pride club and seeing what needs aren't being met here and what we could do about it.

What are your plans for the future?
I will dedicate myself to the repeal and the transitioning phase. I hope my graduation date will line up with the new policy of nondiscrimination, and therefore be able to continue my military career as a commissioned officer. That's it for now.

Barack Obama vowed to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' when do you think America will finally be rid of this policy?
Well the President only has three more years guaranteed, so I know that we will see congressional and senate hearing in the next session. I know we will see a vote in 2010. If the President is going to uphold his promise, and there is no reason to think he won't, he will have to budget, well he will have to put this in the budget for 2011. Hopefully it will pass the vote by then and then it will have 12 months to be implemented like any other law. So we should see the new policy of nondiscrimination by 2012.

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