Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 5, 2010 3:43PM

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Come Out On AOL

Rate: 35 Flag

("Don't Ask, Don't Tell" videos from The West Wing are below).

aolnavy logo

"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Soldier or civilian, gay or straight, we all value our privacy. And we want the freedom to conduct our personal lives freely, without the intrusion or judgement of others.

Internet privacy wasn't always a hot topic. Now, it is. And once again, so is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

I worked at ground zero for the original confluence of those issues -- an incident that started with AOL, involved the US military, brought the Gay community together in force and resulted in a landmark legal case.

The Key: Technology
As a longtime employee I know the history of AOL's contributions to Internet technology. From the beginning it provided easy communication among members and safe web surfing inside its secure proprietary software.

AOL's email form is the gold standard. AOL members can send emails to each other's screen names inside the software, without having to use name@anywheredotcom.

AOL also created the first user-friendly online Search. It's true. America Online pioneered most of the basic tools and 'apps' we take for granted, especially Search.

In the 80's and early 90's there were no web search engines. Yahoo was just emerging. Google didn't exist. But the tech wizards at AOL had come up with a tool and Search available to AOL members through the magic of Keywords.


Type a key word or phrase into a special search window, and click, you're there. Keyword search technology exists in far more sophisticated form today. You don't even type "www" to access sites all over the world and data of every conceivable kind. 

The Old Reality

aol chan

Back in the 90's, "identity theft' was a vague concept. Hackers were stealing credit card numbers and banking information, but as 20th Century thieves, were only interested in the money. So, the need for identity protection was only vaguely understood. 

No one thought much about invasion of privacy. We all assumed our privacy was inviolate.

Even those of us with access to AOL's internal database viewed it as just another tool to manage user accounts and information, provide members with assistance and give researchers invaluable marketing information. 

Most companies from banks to boutiques used the same benign Big Brother technology to service and market to their customers. And do to this day.

But. In the wrong hands or for the wrong reasons, it's a dangerous weapon.


That's at the heart of the story about an invasion of privacy incident at AOL with enormous consequences for one user, for the US Navy and the US Government's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy. 

In 1998, Internet access through AOL was offered to members of the military serving long tours away from home, sometimes away from civilization.

    (Fictictous, created as example only).

The hero of our story was an AOL member who was also a member of the Navy, a submariner serving out of Pearl Harbor. He paid for his own personal AOL account. And created screen names --aliases-- to keep his identity and online activities private.

Like millions of AOL members, he created profiles for those names to reflect his chosen online personas. In a profile for the name "boysrch," he said he was gay. 

Let's be clear. He didn't commit a crime. He didn't solicit children. He might not have been gay. Aside from that one profile, he never claimed he was. Or wasn't. (He is).

It. Doesn't. Matter.  It. Shouldn't. Matter.

Lots of people act out all kinds of fantasies online. Many connect with others. Many don't. This sailor simply expressed himself on AOL in supposed anonymity.

He believed he was protected by AOL's privacy umbrella and operating under the military's  "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy. Which was supposed to shield gays and lesbians from harassment. Or worse.

Can you see what's coming? It's ugly.

The sailor inadvertantly sent an AOL email message from "boysrch" to the AOL screen name of a fellow officer's wife. His message was an offer to help with a charity drive she was conducting. He signed the email "Tim."


She got curious about the "boysrch" name, clicked Keyword: Profile and looked him up. She saw his location listed as Honolulu. And read that under Marital Status he'd entered: Gay.

No other particulars. No identifying information. No phone, no address, no first or last name listed. 

She thought she'd figured out who he was, though, and immediately notified her husband who notified superior officers. The story of the 'gay' profile made it all the way to the Navy's JAG Corps.

I don't know about you, but I'd have thrown her overboard for that little maneuver. Along with her equally homophobic husband.

A Navy JAG lawyer/investigator got involved, instructed a paralegal to call AOL, give the screen name, describe the profile and get confirmation of the member's real name.

We're not talking AOL corporate or legal channels here, the paralegal just dialed AOL's toll-free customer number and asked the person who answered who owned the account with that screen name and profile.

A customer service moron, without any means --or effort-- to confirm who was calling, willingly supplied the information. (He was subsequently fired).

The Shots, The Upshot
The Navy started administrative proceedings to discharge the sailor for being gay. Specifically, under the "Don't Tell" section, the paperwork read, "for homosexual conduct, as evidenced by your statement that you are a homosexual."

The sailor sued the Department of Defense to stop his discharge, alleging the Navy had not only violated the "Don't Ask, Don't Pursue" policy section, but had illegally invaded his privacy under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

The sailor also sued AOL for violating the ECPA by giving his confidential information to the Navy, hell, to anyone -- without a subpoena, search warrant, or court order.

The Navy settled, and paid all his legal fees. His discharge was reversed. He received a previously planned promotion.

AOL settled, and paid undisclosed damages for disclosing his identity.


The man's name, if you don't know, is Master Chief Petty Officer Timothy R. McVeigh, Ret., (not to be confused with the Oklahoma City bomber of the same name).

The legal case, known as Timothy R. McVeigh, v. William Cohen, et al, is on record as the first suit ever won against the government's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy.

Special Chief McVeigh was reinstated and promoted.

The Parting Shot
The Navy managed to keep Timothy McVeigh from celebrating his victory and his promotion in public. Contrary to typical Navy practice, McVeigh's promotion ceremony was held not in public, but behind the closed office doors of his commanding officer, press and fellow submariners banned.

Still, Master Chief Timothy R. McVeigh retired from his 18-year naval career with honor, having received four Good Conduct Medals and the Navy Commendation Medal. 

And Now?
More than twelve years later --might as well be light years-- the Internet has grown enormously. LGBT rights, in the workplace at least, are protected by law. Supposedly.

Gays, lesbians, straights all interact without consequence online. Most of us aren't inside software bubbles any more, we're out here in the big, bad World Wide Web.

Our military men and women are out there in the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for our freedom, American style. Freedom they still don't truly have if they're gay. Also, sadly, American style.

But if they're forced to come out or are unfairly harassed, at least they have legal precedent and recourse. They can thank Timothy R. McVeigh and all who helped him stand up to the hypocrisy and stupidity of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."



If you want to learn more about the original case, finish here:

Wired Strategies -- Master Chief Timothy R. McVeigh 

Netlitigation | Cases | McVeigh vs Cohen

For The Record, AOL's LGBT Record

AOL has a solid track record of supporting LGBT rights. One idiot in customer service did not reflect widespread company policy.

AOL was, and still is, the most enlightened mainstream workplace you could imagine for gays and other 'minorities' (though less so for women, which is slowly changing). Online, the company created and marketed "OnQ" as the first openly gay community.

AOL put its money on the line too, providing the venture capital for PlanetOut Corp., which has grown into the biggest gay company on the web, now traded on the stock exchange under the symbol LGBT and found at AOL employees, including myself, were actively involved in that company's creation and growth.

Scenes From "The West Wing"

Sound is a bit off, still a GREAT scene, totally on point about the absurdity of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

This one will break your heart. Parents of the victim of an anti-gay hate crime are invited to the White House. Staff is worried the father might be uncomfortable his son was gay. See if they're right.



Update: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is history now, but I predict the attitudes it represents will remain current --especially in the military-- for years to come. I hope I'm wrong.  1.19.2011



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This week when I had the flu, plague, whatever...I was listening to NPR. It may have been my fever, but I swear I heard them interviewing a Republican congressman from CA who said one problem dropping the "Don't Ask. Don't tell." would be opening the door to hermaphrodites. And what would we do then? Did anyone else hear this? Was I hallucinating? God, I hope so.
Sally, since leaving California I have experienced more 'outing' than ever in my life. What people need to know is that it's dangerous. Yes, as we all know, I out myself. On my blog. Now, I do. But, there are people right here in person who have never seen my blog nor have I told them I'm gay, but they know. It's the thing so many love to whisper about, still. And the outer has no idea what the receiver of that info may do with it. Scary stuff.

Great post. xox
I was unaware of this story and thank you for telling it. Glad McVeigh got taken care of. The Armed Services ought to do the same for everyone ever forced out by this cockamamie policy.
Mime, "hermaphrodites"? I haven't heard such a thing, maybe it's your fever? No, it is the kind of thing a radical wingnut would say.

Robin, I hear you and yet it still surprises me that here in the 21st century anyone would care (well, except for Republicans and military morons). It's dangerous for me and all who support LGBT rights to let our guard down. Thanks for the reminder.

jimmy, he was quite a hero, if a reluctant one... in the sense that he wasn't militant, just wanted to do his job in the military.

Thanks Bonnie, I hope Don't Ask, Don't Tell gets uncovered and booted into the stratosphere.
Thanks so much for this post!
Mime, Stephen Colbert did a bit on a hermaphrodite in the military. He concluded that since they had both parts it wasn't Homosexual sex regardless of who they were with.

And if the military spent as much time tracking down terrorists as they do trying to track down potential Homosexuals....well.
Deb and Ralph, thank you!

ocular, you took the words out of my mouth.
Thank you for this Sally. I wish I could rated it twice.

"In one study, 98% of males who raped boys reported that they were heterosexual." -Sexual Abuse of Boys, Journal of the American Medical Association, December 2, 1998. While you're worried about serving next to a gay soldier, your straight buddy might be secretly salivating over the picture you showed him of your little kid. Judge not.
Thanks or this post. Excellent.
The 'hermaphrodites' part cracked me up, though.
Appreciated and Rated
Great story. Thanks for telling it.
aside from the obvious -- that i agree that Don't Ask/Don't Tell is crap and should be erased -- i'm just fascinated by the details and the background of the AOL/McVeigh story. and if the guy's life wasn't beset by crappy luck and worse -- his name is Timothy R. McVeigh? jesus. does it get worse than that?

thanks for putting all this together, sally.
Until the law is repealed, don't enforce.
Amanda, thanks and especially for that statistic, which just for the record really creeeped me out.

fusan, trilogy, glad you enjoyed.

femme, I just report the news, I didn't make it, but all employees suffered from it. (That's another story). And you're right, the guy does seem to have had a cloud hanging over him. I'd have changed my name. Or not.

Dog, don't enforce, I totally agree.
That's nothing. Imagine what Facebook, Myspace, Yahoo or Go0gle are sharing. It is all so interlinked now, there is little privacy, which is why I almost always use aliases online. To hide from employers or potential employers.
FusanA, I spelled your name wrong, sorry!

Snoreville, I agree @what's going on today, but this was in the 90's at the time DADT was supposed to be Helping. And the Navy got sued. And a sailor won. That's something, anyway. At least I think so.
Great post--I didn't know about this. Thank you.
Great post. The whole don't ask don't tell thing is such a . . . well, you know.
Thanks for the history and the excellent reporting.
Wow, what a story! And it points out yet again the illusion (delusion?) people have about anonymity on the Net. Ha!

Admiral Mullen put the matter as succinctly as it can be put.

As for this: "I don't know about you, but I'd have thrown her overboard for that little maneuver. Along with her equally homophobic husband." I'm sure she and her husband would tell you they were just doing their duty as good Americans AND good Christians.

Which leads me to suggest that frightening as this story is, doings at the Air Force Academy strike me as more so. The evangelical fundamentalist proselytizing at that institution should have closed it down.

Which leads me to remind people that we will be a VERY long time (IF EVER) undoing the damage caused by the tangled web of politics and religion that began under Reagan and was carried to insanity under Bush. It will be twenty years -- at least -- before the Justice Dept can be cleared of boot-licking incompetent Liberty University lackeys.
Bravo. A very, very well thought out piece. Thank you.
Fascinating, Sally. A great story (especially because it's true.) I like happy endings (though I'm bothered by the fact that he could not celebrate his promotion in public). Oh, and yes -- I would have thrown that lady and her husband overboard too. In so many ways, times have changed for the better. Great challenges lie ahead, but the trajectory seems to be in the right direction. Thanks for the post. Great reporting.
Sophieh, Monique, mypsyche, Chris, thanks for your thanks. :)

Tom, I admire the Admiral for at least speaking up. But you nailed it with this, "It will be twenty years -- at least -- before the Justice Dept can be cleared of boot-licking incompetent Liberty University lackeys."

Steve, it's interesting but I realized I didn't try to find out anything else about him. I guess I'm practicing what I preach and leaving the guy alone. I just hope he's happy.
Right on, Sally! Well said!
DADT was a lousy kick-the-can-down-the-road compromise to begin with. Thank you for this story, Sally.
Excellent post. Fascinating story well told.
It all disgusts me. The whole thing is based on one thing, the stupid policy that was put in place to satisfy the people who for some unfathomable reason, are afraid to accept the fact that there are now and always have been gays in the military. Maybe they should all just come out and end the nonsense forever. The masses of gays that would tie up the military system would be enough to force the issue. Maybe it's just me, I think that it is just asinine to continue to have such a large segment of the population so ignorant of reality that they must be pandered to in order to shut them up. Or as another group of vocal gay rights folks so aptly put it, They're here, they're queer, get used to it. It isn't freakin' brain surgery.
Sally, working for AOL, you should know theres no such thing as being "anonymous" on the internet. Everyone, has an IP address which can be looked up to identify the owner. That has been a fact since the beginning of the internet. This is one reason I have always used my own name, or some derivative of it. I would not want someone trying to blackmail me, because they thought I was trying to hide something.

That aside, your' post was great. The idea that in this day and age, the US military is still afraid of homosexuals, is regrettable. The fact that we interact with military forces of other nations, most of whom allow gays in their military. Makes it even sillier. If only, that it was silly. It is not!
The hermaphrodite thing, does not surprise me. The ignorance of so many Republicans, is common fact. Just look right here in Florida if you want to hear some of the nutcases in office. ( See: Ronda Storms-State Representative from Hillsborough County )
Bobbot, the problem with the idea of all Gays coming out, is that some of them are "Consevatives". Those who actually believe, it is best kept to themselves. I actually know a few. I often feel like saying to them, "who do you think you're fooling, no-one but yourself!"
Wonderful story- thanks!
Thank you for that primer. I had never heard about this before. But it took me back to 1993 and 1994, when I first started following politics and when I first got online with AOL. I love the screen shots. Would love to see more.
L&P, it pisses me off too. In the 21st century, why oh why does anybody care who's gay or straight? Can they do the job? End of story. I agree, I'd like to think that woman's at least had her consciousness raised, but I doubt it.

Butchy, Stim, Pilgrim, thanks for adding your voices.

mela, it was a little different for those of us in programming and mgmt. We lost our 24/7 access to the database. Still same KW, but a form to explain why we needed info on a member and access limited to that specific info. Thank you for reminding me about AOL's internal workplace policy. I'm going to add it to my post.

Bob, it's infuriating and I too support the pithy, "They're here, they're queer, get used to it. It isn't freakin' brain surgery."

Kenny, I'm pleased you liked the post, but have to disagree about the past and identity. Sure, geeks could figure out identities, hackers were learning on the spot all the time. But 12 years ago the average user --or non-tech employee-- on AOL didn't even know what an IP address was.

AOL had its own internal programming language that was, oddly, easy to use but hard to hack. Most employees used our own names as work screen names and used 'play' names to interact in chat and message boards . It was a far different era.
Karin, I love it! But if there were a penalty for being a douchebag, most of Congress and big business, plus the military elite and many state and city governments would shut down.

Derek, glad you enjoyed. It's fun to remember the beginnings of AOL. I have a whole AOL album, including old screenshots on my Facebook page. Go have a look.

"I heard them interviewing a Republican congressman from CA who said one problem dropping the "Don't Ask. Don't tell." would be opening the door to hermaphrodites. And what would we do then? Did anyone else hear this? Was I hallucinating?"

You probably heard it. Women (I don't know about men) applying for the service are required to undergo a brief physical examination the sole purpose of which is to determine their gender. My recruiter chuckingly whispered, in a you'll-never-believe-this tone of voice, that "one time, some one tried to apply who turned about to be both". After all, if someone is intersexed you clearly can't trust them to be an honest gender, so how can you trust them with national security???
I was not asking. And I swear a deathly oath not to tell. Who would pass along such scurrilous lies? (HurumphHurumph) Amen.
This is such an important subject to discuss. Beyond the absolute stupidity of an over-stretched military filled with all sorts of questionable types choosing to exclude willing volunteers who are gay is the question of information sharing in the digital age. Everyone knows everything and anyone with a modicum of computer knowledge can probably stumble upon information about others. This in addition to concerns about businesses that buy, sell, and trade information for commercial purposes and institutions that gather information for presumed "security" concerns.
Teh, the military doesn't trust anyone, just ask Harold.

Nikki, agreed, the military has a hard enough time filling its ranks with dedicated, well-trained troops, why on earth would they be stupid enough to refuse or get rid of any qualified personnel? Well, because They are stupid I guess.
People just don't realize how invasive being outed is, and how much it can affect one's life. Rated.
You know I've been mulling over entering the nursing corps, but keep forgetting to add DADT into the equation. Here I am focused on my animals and how often I would have to be away from them, that's what has been making me think GS would be the way to go. I wonder if they have guidelines for their GSs though, there is no way I'm going back into the closet. No way. I will not be sick like that.
Oh, I loves me some West Wing. I could come back here all day long.
It wasn't my fever... I just found this on another blog site:

"Rep. Duncan Hunter has raised concerns the repeal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy would open the doors “to transgenders, to hermaphrodites” serving in the military.

In a controversial interview on National Public Radio, the La Mesa Republican, a former Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, made it clear he disagrees with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

“The military is not civilian life and I think the folks that have been in the military that have been in these very close situations with each other, there has to be a special bond there and I think that bond is broken if you open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians,” he said. "
Ethical, it should be just as much a choice as anything else. It's. Noboby's. Damn. Business.

Julie, I hear ya, although from the experience of someone close to me (obviously I can't say who, and how lame is that), I know that in the medical corps it really is ignored. They need doctors and nurses too desperately.

Lainey, that DADT scene was one of my WW favorites... although how can I say that, EVERY episode is a favorite.

Mimetalker, that is just plain creepy. Wow.