Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dick Cheney & Gays in the Military

One of the more interesting aspects of Randy Shilts' book Conduct Unbecoming that I have finally finished reading, are some of the people mentioned and their roles involving gays in the military. This is especialy true of Shilts' telling of the mostly hostile atmosphere during the 1970s & 80s. Some of the people wouldn't achieve much attention until years later, while others were already at the height of their fame and power. From Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat from Georgia who pressured a decorated Vietnam veteran that served on his staff to seek other employment because he was gay (pp.390-391), to then-Colonel Peter Pace who sought to have charges pressed against two Marines that had participated in an attack on patrons of a gay bar in Washington, DC (p.721). Nunn a few years later of course would infamously mount a fierce opposition to President Bill Clinton's plan to repeal the ban against gays in military, while General Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stirred up controversy with some seemingly anti-gay remarks during an interview. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the role of then-SecDef Dick Cheney, who currently serves as Vice President admired by some some and reviled by others. While Cheney could hardly be considered a champion for gay rights, neither was he "homophobic" or antagonistic towards homosexuals either. It's possible that his love for his lesbian daughter Mary Cheney may have been behind some of this. It is notable that he strongly defended his daughter when her sexual orientation became a political issue many years after he headed DoD and Vice President Cheney would publicly express support for same-sex unions. In the early 1990s, blatant hostility against homosexuals in uniform was rampant among top leaders in the Defense Department, which caused Cheney a number of difficulties during his tenure as SecDef. In 1990, he personally intervened to force the U.S. Navy to drop demands for repayment of tuition after expelling 3 gay Midshipmen from the Naval Academy, whose cases became cause célèbre for the gay rights movement (p.708). When disgruntled Navy officials attempted to quietly pressure another expelled gay Midshipman to repay his tuition, Cheney exploded in anger, fuming, "Goddamn it, I've told the military departments not to hit people up for back tuition!". He quickly dispatched an aide to reiterate his previous order to both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Naval Personnel and the matter was promptly dropped. The extent of the purges of gay military personnel during previous administrations and the continued focus of top brass on expelling homosexuals disgusted Cheney and he ordered such "witch-hunts" to immediately stop. Unfortunately though, this order didn't meet with a lot of success at the time. Perhaps the most telling episode of Cheney's tenure as SecDef and how he related to gay personnel both civilian and military is when his aide Pete Williams was outed by a gay magazine (pp.739-740):

In August [1991], The Advocate ran a story "outing" a very high-ranking civilian Pentagon official. The official, generally referred to in the press as a senior spokesman for the Defense Department, had worked at the right hand of Secretary Cheney for many years, and few believed that Cheney was uninformed of the man's orientation before the story appeared.

The mainstream press generally declined to identify the man, eschewing the newly popular gay practice of revealing the sexual orientation of people who would prefer to remain hidden. But aggressive promotion by the gay magazine ensured that there were several stories about a certain unnamed official. This led to an unprecedented event in the history of gays in the military: A Secretary of Defense admitted that homosexuals did servce in the armed forces.

In fact, in numerous interviews Cheney acknowledged that gays had always served, often honorably, but he tried to draw the distinction between a civilian serving on his senior staff and a soldier serving in a military environment where issues of order, discipline, and morale came into play. Cheney's defense of the military policy was anemic, however, and he frequently referred to it as something he "inherited" from previous administrations. As for the notion that gays were security risks, Cheney called it "sort of an old chestnut". As Congressman Barney Frank told one interviewer: "If Cheney defended the United States the way he defended this policy, we would have been captured by now - by Cuba". Nevertheless, Cheney's comments marked the first time in nearly a decade that anyone in the defense establishment had advanced any argument for the policy beyond the usual 123 words. [DoD Directive 1332.14 (1982)]

What was most remarkable about the outing was what it said about shifting attitudes toward gays. The gay Defense Department spokesman kept his job. According to one senior Pentagon official, Cheney brought the matter up personally with President [George H. W.] Bush, who approved the man's retention. And there was the marvel of a Republican Secretary of Defense from the conservative wing of his party saying he did not care about the private lives of his closest aides.

All in all very fascinating reading.

(this is also posted over on Gay Patriot)