November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

When conservative Republican Steve May was elected to the Arizona legislature last year, it was the culmination of a boyhood dream. But in February, May’s personal and political worlds collided when a fellow Republican representative sponsored a bill to ban the use of public funds to pay health benefits for same-sex couples. After hearing Karen Johnson assert that homosexuality is “at the lower end of the behavioral spectrum,” May, 27, rose to speak his mind. “I am disgusted,” he said. “You can be as bigoted as you want to be. But treat me fairly under the law.”

The bill failed, but May, who is gay, knew his candor could cost him. As it happened, two days later he was unexpectedly called up for active duty in the Army Reserve, which was gearing up for possible combat service in Kosovo. A lieutenant in the 348th Transportation Company, May soon learned that he had been up for promotion to captain but was now being investigated and facing dismissal for violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that requires gays in the military to keep their sexual orientation private.

The Army contends that the publicity generated by May’s declaration left it little choice. “We don’t look for information,” says Col. John Hawkins, the Army Reserve spokesman. “If it’s brought to the commanders’ attention, then they act.”

May’s homosexuality was hardly a revelation. He had been publicly outed in 1996, when he ran unsuccessfully for the state senate and a supporter wrote to Republican leaders in Maricopa County, identifying him as gay. Last year, May ran as an openly gay candidate and won a comfortable victory in a solidly Republican district in Phoenix. “His constituents rewarded him for his honesty, and the military is punishing him,” says C. Dixon Osburn of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides free advice to gay and lesbian soldiers. “It’s a sad state of affairs.”

Still, May doesn’t regret his remarks. “I am a state legislator with an obligation to speak openly and honestly,” he says. “Being gay is not something I chose but who I am.”

As devout Mormons, his parents, Jim May, 63, and Carol, 54, owners of an herbal tea and natural foods business in Phoenix, are admittedly pained by their son’s homosexuality. But, says his father, “we are very proud of Steve.” And they have always urged the second of their five surviving children to value honesty above all. “Lose the election, but don’t lose your integrity,” Jim told his son when, emulating idol Barry Goldwater, he ran for class president in high school.

Since childhood, May has fought for what he sees as right. In eighth grade, for instance, he led a successful protest on behalf of a student who had been kicked out of school for dyeing his hair purple. Recalls Rachael Jacobs, 28, a high school friend: “He always spoke out against authority that he thought was in the wrong.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam POW, encouraged May to serve in the military when, as a 14-year-old volunteer in McCain’s first U.S. Senate campaign, May confided that he too had political ambitions. Armed forces service would hone his leadership skills, McCain told him. Subsequently, May won an ROTC scholarship to Claremont McKenna College in California, where he quietly came out as gay.

By all accounts, May has served his country well. At Fort Riley, Kans., where he was on active duty from 1993 to 1995, his commanding officer Capt. Jarrod Krull wrote that May was “one of the finest young officers I have ever seen.” Krull and his wife, who only recently learned of May’s homosexuality, were so impressed with May that they asked him to be their daughter’s godfather. “My wife and I have absolutely no regrets,” says Krull. “We know what kind of person he is.”

May, who lives in a three-bedroom stucco house with his partner, Paul Quinn, 29, a sign-language instructor, is saddened by the prospect of being dismissed from the Army. Although he doubts he can prevail against the Army, May is not surrendering. “I am not going to allow other people’s prejudices,” he says, “to keep me from doing the work I feel called to do.”

Bruce Frankel

Jerry Kammer in Phoenix

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