Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 | The headline of a Oct. 11 column in The Washington Post tells Joseph Rocha’s story in six words: “I Didn’t Tell. It Didn’t Matter.”

“The irony of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply,” wrote Rocha in the column, about the abuse he suffered as a Navy dog handler in Bahrain.

Now a political science student at the University of San Diego, he went public in June about the sexual harassment, physical abuse and hazing in his unit from 2004-2006. He quickly became a national figure in the movement to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

The story of abuse in the military police unit, confirmed by a Navy investigation, has been well-documented in the media. So has the suicide of his best friend, a commander who was implicated in the scandal.

In a Q&A, I asked the 23-year-old Rocha to talk about other topics: how the spotlight has affected him, what made him tell the world about what happened and why he wants to return to the military.

What made you join the military in the first place when you were gay and knew what the policy was?

I had decided to join the military two years before I knew I was gay. I had a steady girlfriend. It was 9/11 that made it clear to me what my career path would be after high school.

And then by my senior year, before I enlisted, I did know I was gay. But it had only happened a few months earlier, and it was pretty irrelevant to me. It wasn’t enough of a part of my life to where I would let it affect a career decision.

And regarding the policy, I was convinced that as long as I didn’t say anything or come across as gay, I’d be perfectly fine.

Why do you think the other sailors chose you to abuse?

For one, there was animosity because I trained in the Marine Corps and there’s tension between the Navy and the Marines. The Marines were really fond of my ethic and my dedication to training and learning, and in the smaller unit, in the canine unit, they didn’t take kindly to that.

And also I just wasn’t one of the boys, I wasn’t interested in what they did last weekend, who they had sex with and the poker parties with prostitutes. That quickly created doubt regarding my sexuality.

If the military got rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, wouldn’t this still have happened?

Before it escalated, I could have reported the abuse without the threat of my sexuality coming under investigation and losing my career.

How did you decide to go public?

Privately, I had been testifying before politicians to gain support for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I had no intentions of going public, then I attended a protest in San Francisco the day that the California Supreme Court decided to uphold Proposition 8.

That day I took my American flag and I wore my dog tags. A reporter asked me if those dog tags were real and why I had the American flag. My answer was that people forget that we in the gay community are citizens of this country and even veterans of this country.

I was arrested with 180 people for civil disobedience and for shutting down traffic downtown. It was then reported that a young veteran was handcuffed and taken to jail wearing the American flag. It made an impression on people.

Then Youth Radio invited me to an interview, and they broke the story.

What did you think when you realized this might go national and become a big story?

I understood that there was an opportunity to have a great impact on the repeal through what occurred to me in the Middle East.

And my energy just became entirely focused on making sure we were doing this in the most effective way to gain support for the repeal.

Do you think you made the right choice?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. [On Wednesday] I think we broke ground. For the first time in history you had the two most powerful men in the United States Navy, the chief of naval operations and secretary of the Navy, publicly and nationally supporting a gay veteran. That sets a new tone.

What are the challenges for you of being in the spotlight?

The first thing was my safety. I do get unfriendly e-mails, and reporters did start to show up on my doorstep, which made me aware of the fact that someone who wanted to hurt me could do just the same.

I’ve made peace with the fact that I am putting myself at risk of potentially being harmed.

After that, [the challenge] was trying to manage being a full time student and doing the activism. Then the traveling created a new challenge of trying to maintain my grades and remain effective.

What in your background makes you brave enough to stand up and do this?

My whole life, I grew up among violence and abuse. I think that’s where my fearlessness and advocacy comes from, that mentality of being willing to do anything to bring a large amount of good for others.

Did you have to protect other people in that environment?

No. I just had to survive. Because no one was there for me, it instilled the need for me to be there for others.

Since I was a kid, I was always trying to find out how can I help the most people. “Do I want to be a policeman or a firefighter or a doctor? No, I want to be a public servant.” But after 9/11, I decided that before I become a public servant, I wanted to serve in the military.

Where did you grow up?

All over the state of California. My mother lost my custody when I was 7 when she took me on a high-speed chase. Then I went to live with my step-mother. My father was a trucker and gone most of the month, and that facilitated another abusive environment. My mother just died of drug use in December.

What do you think of the military now?

I’m overwhelmed to see our military leadership express their willingness to transition into a post-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era just as soon as they receive the legislation from Congress.

Doesn’t your case show that the military just can’t handle gays in their ranks?

It is far more productive to eliminate bigots in boot camp who can’t deal with females, minorities and homosexuals rather than deprive the entire rank of the skill set and ability of these minorities.

President Obama has gotten criticism from the gay community for not quickly acting to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Do you think he’s stalling?

One of the criticisms of his HRC speech was that there wasn’t a timetable. But I think there was a clear timetable there. He’s saying he’ll repeal the policy as president. He’s not guaranteed a second term, so it has to happen in three years.

What’s next for you?

I continue the national push for the repeal. I need to finish my degree so that in the implementation of the new policy, I can continue my career in the military. I still want to serve more years and go into public service.

— Interview conducted and edited by RANDY DOTINGA

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