“There is such intolerance for anything Gay at the Academy that there is no place for anyone to go. It is just very lonely and really sad.”
by Robert Raketty
SGN A&E Writer
In his remarkable coming of age memoir, Here's What We'll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S.AirForceAcademy, Reichen Lehmkuhl leaves little to the imagination. This eye-opening and emotional recounting of his life is both revealing about the experiences of cadets in the U.S. Air Force Academy and insightful about the human condition. On Thursday, November 9th, he will come to Seattle to share his narrative with a local audience.
Lehmkuhl will be holding a book reading at Bailey Coy Books (414 Broadway E., Seattle) on Thursday, Nov. 9th, at 7 PM. Later, at 9 PM, he will be the featured guest at a fundraiser for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Washington State to be held at the Broadway Grill (314 Broadway E., Seattle). Both events are open to the public.
Best known for his win on CBS’ “Amazing Race,” Lehmkuhl has made a name for himself as an international model and advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender civil rights. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served as a captain in the Air Force. Last July, former ‘N Sync band member Lance Bass, told People Magazine he was Gay and in a relationship with Lehmkuhl.
This week the Seattle Gay News spoke with him about his new book, his relationship with Bass and his hopes for an end to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Seattle Gay News: You really open up your soul in this book. Did you every wonder if you revealed too much or how it would be perceived by others?
Reichen Lehmkuhl: Of course. When I wrote the first draft, the book was a lot more raw than it is now. It went even more into my feelings and into the physical experiences that I had. It was more descriptive of different events that had happened to me. I toned that down because it just wasn’t necessary for people to know that much detail and I still got the point across by bringing it to the level I brought it to for the public.
SGN: Reading this book, there were a lot of moments I could identify with. Are you finding out that – perhaps – you weren’t as alone in your insecurities and emotions as you thought?
RL: It is truly amazing to get the responses that I have from publishing the book. There are so many Gay men actually writing me saying, “Wow! I went through the same thing. I had the same feelings as a child. I was ridiculed in the same way that you were.” It is just really interesting to find that out.
SGN: You spend a lot of time talking about your childhood; setting up the rest of the story. ... As you say in your book, even though you were well provided for, you could never get over living in a trailer.
RL: Yeah. It’s true. Looking back at 32-years-old, I can honestly say it wasn’t that bad. I had a loving family. I had a roof over me. I had food and clean clothes. I had all the needs of basic life were met for me. So, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was quite good. But, it was the other kids who made me feel like it wasn’t good. You know, kids are so impressionable, especially by their peers. I think I just listened to them more than anyone else because of a need for acceptance at that age.
SGN: In your book, you talk a little bit about your spiritual journey. You said you believed that God made you Gay and that he supports Gay people. How did you reconcile your spiritual beliefs, despite the hurtful rhetoric that was out there?
RL: I don’t get the question.
SGN: For example, you had to witness this anti-Gay video at the Academy. Knowing the attitudes that existed, how were you able to reconcile your religious beliefs?
RL: At the time – when I saw the anti-Gay video being played in the Chaplain Assembly Room – I didn’t even understand spirituality half as much as I understand it now. Again, I was so impressionable at that time. I hadn’t really done any soul-searching for my spirituality. I just knew that something was wrong. I knew that there was no reason why a chaplain at the Air Force Academy should be playing an anti-Gay video to cadets. I found it wrong and so did other cadets. Fast forward to now, I realize the motivation behind people doing things like that. It wasn’t good enough for him to dislike Gay people. He wanted to spread it to the minds of cadets and – even worse – cadets coming to a Bible study to find spirituality.
SGN: You mention in your book that – looking back on it – that you thought some of your early childhood bullies were probably Gay. You thought that, because they were good looking, that they had to confront their sexuality at a younger age. I thought that was interesting.
RL: I realized that just by talking to a lot of people; a lot of people who had a lot of attention at an early age. The more popular kids in school who seemed to be deemed better looking by the other kids in the school...had to confront their sexuality a lot earlier because they were thrown into this kind of social and dating scene by their peers. So, if they are straight, they deal with that earlier, and if they are Gay, they deal with that much earlier.
SGN: You talk about your grandmother, Betty Stagg, who was a pioneer for women, having served in the Women’s Air Force Service as a pilot during World War II. What do you hope – if anything – that your book will achieve for Gays in the military?
RL: The first thing I want is for the ban lifted on Gays lifted in the military. The second thing I want is for the next Presidential candidate to answer for a lot of the atrocities that I write about in my book. ... I also am really hoping that what people take away from the book is that when communication happens between people a bond develops. It is not a breakdown in moral, it is an actual bond. It is a bond of friendship that is less likely to be broken when everyone is communicating and knowing what is like to be serving openly next to a Gay person in the military.
SGN: Do you think it is ironic that the person who helped you to get into the Academy happened to be Gay?
RL: Yeah. Actually, he was openly Gay at the time he gave me my nomination and he was the first one to come through with my nomination. I think it is more ironic that someone that he nominated turned out to be Gay and really became an advocate working to change the academy. So, I guess he put me in the right place.
SGN: You mentioned that there was a kind of nepotism between cadets and officers who shared the same fundamentalist Christian views. What affect do you think that has within the halls of America’s Air Force Academy?
RL: In the past couple of years that scandal – and that’s exactly what it was – was exposed. A full investigation happened. People were fired at the Academy. I think that really did a lot to really take care of that fundamentalist religious nepotism that was going on there. Now, I bet it is a little more politically correct. You can’t get away with it as much.
SGN: You talk about being sexually assaulted in your book. Do you think that similar assaults have gone unreported? If so, why?
RL: Yeah. Of course. Similar assaults must have happened and gone unreported because there is no where for a Gay cadet to go in the Academy when they are suffering in that way. So, it just makes sense that this has happened before. It is something that people can get away with there knowing that cadets can’t really report it. There is such a level of intolerance for anything Gay at the academy that there is no place for anyone to go. It is just very lonely and really sad.
SGN: You started The Underground, which was a secret society of fellow cadets who were Gay or Gay-friendly. How important was it to create a safe space where people could be their whole selves?
RL: It was extremely important – I think -- for the sanity of a lot of us to have friends we could go to and that we knew we could trust and to be able to be protected when doing things that other cadets are allowed to do and not be thrown out for. And, again, when you have a policy like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which basically just gives people permission to lie about their sexuality; these are the kind of little cells that are going to exist within our military. It is no wonder that this was formed. I have e-mails and reports from cadets at the academies now saying that there are similar groups that still exist and that still meet in the same clandestine way. It doesn’t surprise me at all.
SGN: How has the “Amazing Race” changed your life? If so, has it been entirely positive?
RL: The Amazing Race has definitely put me in the public eye. Being a person with something political to say; I have continued to be in that public place. So, it has definitely changed my life and put me into the kind of category of a person who gets to be out there and saying what they want to the general public. It is a really good place to be. I am very thankful and I feel very blessed.
SGN: I have to at least try to ask you a couple questions about your partner, former ‘N Sync member Lance Bass.
RL: You can try.
SGN: Other than being an amazing artist, what do people not know about Lance that you want to share with the world?
RL: Nothing. We don’t discuss our relationship.
SGN: You talk about – in your book – how you believe that Gays are genetically predisposed to be Gay, but that – perhaps -- life experience may have pushed you over the edge. Do you think being Gay is something that is genetic? Do you want to weigh into that debate?
RL: This is from my own personal life and my own personal experience. It would be hard for me to say whether it was nature or nurture, but -- in my case – I tend to believe it was a little bit of both. I think I was genetically predisposed to be Gay, yet, here I was living a straight life for twenty years. So, what is it that makes someone go over the edge and say, “You know, I just have to admit this.” What is it? Is it stress, a significant life experience or overcoming significant challenges? Who knows? The answer is that whatever it is that makes you Gay is valid. Once you’re wired that way from childhood – whether it is by nature or nurture or a combination of both; it is valid and it is the way you are and it is okay.
SGN: Also, in your book; you talk about the hazing that was going on. How much of that do you think was important to your training and how much may have – perhaps – crossed the line? Where do you draw the line?
RL: I think that the hazing that I experienced at the Academy wasn’t really line crossing until it became an assault – once -- on me. The other hazing, even the stuff that wasn’t allowed and those we kept under wraps; I don’t think it was that bad. I think it was a part of tradition. I think it was a rite of passage that gives cadets something to be proud of. However, when hazing goes into the sexual realm, then, it is inappropriate. I am not endorsing any kind of illegal hazing either. I am just saying that what I went through was not damaging to me, other than the sexual stuff.
SGN: You mention in your book that jokes about hurting and killing homosexuals were widely accepted in the U.S. Armed Forces. How much do think this macho and homophobic attitude affects the service members’ ability to do their job -- both Gay and straight?
RL: I think being macho is different than making homophobic remarks or racist remarks or something like that. There is definitely a certain level of bravery that someone needs to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, especially when they have given an oath to ultimately give their life for their profession, but – as far as the homophobic remarks – they only break down morale and make people feel lesser. If they aren’t Gay, it makes it so that if anything remotely Gay comes near them that they need to get rid of it or push it away or physically harm it – meaning a person. It makes for a very terrible environment and it just breeds more and more homophobia because no one wants anything Gay near them. They don’t want anyone to think they’re Gay. They don’t want anyone to think they are friends with a Gay person. Then, there are a lot of people who have Gay family members and who are Gay. It just makes for a really, really terrible environment. The U.S. military continues to fail to add homosexuality to their human relations training, where they teach people how to be sensitive to other cultures.
SGN: You mentioned in you book that when you were working in ROTC admissions, that there seemed to be a favorable admissions process for minorities. However, you also mention in your book how there was a strong lack of minorities in the academy.
RL: It’s no wonder. When I talk about how the admissions process being favorable to minorities, I wasn’t saying that was wrong. In fact, I was saying that I agree with it. We were taught to actively go out and recruit minorities to come into the Academy. However, those minorities couldn’t just be any minority. They had to be held to the same standards as anyone else to get into the Academy. They had to have the SAT scores, they had to have the athletic background, they had to have a high class ranking and they had to show some leadership potential. But, because the Academy was so lacking in minority population, I think it is a good thing. I was just pointing it out how it is done. Frankly, it should be done that way right now.
SGN: You will be coming to Seattle shortly, so people will have the chance to meet you. But, I want also to give you a chance to talk about the things that we may not have covered.
RL: I just want the readers to know that their tax dollars are paying for this harassment of an entire group of people who have served our country and who die for our country. They need to know that there have been 10,000 discharges since the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell.” It never got rid of the ban on Gay people. It swept the ban on Gay people under the carpet so that no body talked about it anymore. The horrors are still happening. I want people to know that around $300 million of their tax dollars have been wasted away from discharging Gay people from the military. It is time for us to speak up about it. We have a military that is ultimately run by a civilian and that’s the President and that is someone who we elect. Ultimately, we need our lead civilian to have a say in how we run our military. So, we need to stand up and talk about it and we have got to get rid of this policy. There are no more excuses. I have offered a hundred viable ways to integrate Gay people and straight people into the military. I am already starting the outline of my next book that is going to outline exactly how it is going to happen – in or out of combat. It will discuss how showers will work; how bathrooms will work; and how sleeping situations will work. It is not going to be expensive and it is not going to be impossible. It is going to be a leadership issue that someone who has a brain is going to take care of and is going to take charge of; instead of this horrible situation we have now for the entire community of Gay people. That’s all.
SGN: On behalf of myself and our readers, I do want to thank you for your time today.
RL: Okay. Thank you so much.