OUTstanding Virginians 2011

Tom Field

Change Agent

When “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” died an overdue death in December 2010, nobody could have been happier than Equality Virginia board member Tom Field. Not only had Tom worked tirelessly to reverse the policy, its downfall provided sweet justice for 32 years of distinguished military service as a closeted gay man.

The fight against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, however, is only the latest of Tom’s many successful efforts to make government fairer and more responsive. After college (Notre Dame), graduate school (Oxford), law school (Harvard) and a stint as a trial attorney for the Justice Department, Tom took a position in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Legislative Council helping to draft the nation’s tax laws. What he saw in the lawmaking process was “not a pretty sight,” in Tom’s words: “The public was not represented and special interests held sway.”

Resolved to inform citizens of their rights and keep the press abreast of legislative developments, Tom left the civil service in 1970 to found Tax Analysts. At first, the Arlington-based nonprofit had a staff of one—Tom—and no funds. Soon, however, foundation money began coming in and Tom started selling subscriptions to the organization’s publications. When he left as president and publisher in 2005, Tax Analysts employed 200 people and produced over a dozen periodicals.

Along the way, Tom decided to do something unheard-of: provide health insurance for the live-in partners of his LGBT employees. In 1985, the concept was so new that Tom had to explain it to his insurance carriers. For the next seven years, domestic partner coverage was offered with no issues, but by the early nineties the practice had become a political hot button and the state outlawed it.

Seeking to change the law, Tom went to Virginians for Justice (EV’s forerunner) but found the organization understaffed and underfunded. Again, he decided to lead the change himself. He joined the board and led a reorganization in 1999 that equipped the group to lobby more effectively. The revitalized organization succeeded in getting the domestic partner ban repealed two years later. Tom kept his seat and is now Equality Virginia’s longest-serving director. “I didn’t realize it would be a life sentence,” he quips.

By 2005, Tom, now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown and American University, took up a new cause: ending Don’t’ Ask Don’t Tell. This issue lay very close to Tom’s heart. A Korean War veteran, Tom remained in the Army as a reservist, reaching the rank of colonel. In his 30 years in uniform, he saw up-close the witch hunts that brutally separated gay soldiers from the service they loved. “They’d be arrested in the morning, interrogated, their belongings searched, and by noon they’d be standing outside the post gate with a suitcase and a dishonorable discharge,” Tom recalls; “No due process, no appeal.” Despite this ever-present threat, Tom managed to fall in love with a fellow soldier in 1956 and maintain the relationship until his lover died in the mid-eighties, a casualty of AIDS. “Love springs eternal,” Tom muses.

So, when the hope of ending discrimination in the armed forces faded into Don’t’ Ask Don’t Tell, Tom knew he had to act. In 2005, the leading advocacy group, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), created an advisory group of 45 retired officers, including generals and admirals. Tom joined this group and was named co-chairman last fall, just as SLDN’s efforts reached their successful climax. He set up a conference for policy makers, created a video and lobbied Virginia’s two Democratic senators until both declared their support for repeal. For Tom, these efforts provided a heady sense of personal relief. He began to identify himself in public forums as a gay man for the first time. “What a wonderful change this was,” Tom recalls.

Life has brought Tom Field many blessings—academic and military distinction, beloved children and grandchildren, the chance to make a more just society. Sometimes, he says, he marvels at the journey: “Since I came of age and realized what my sexual orientation was, 60 years have elapsed. The world has changed for the better to an enormous degree. We have a long way to go, yes, but we’ve come so far that it takes my breath away.”