Powell's Gay Soldier Dilemma

Once a chief proponent of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Colin Powell now supports its repeal. But, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells Gail Sheehy, he still has his concerns. Plus, what soldiers are saying about Powell’s change of heart.

Steven Senne / AP Photo

No one was more surprised than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand when Gen. Colin Powell did an about-face on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

His announcement came only a day after the New York Democrat attended hearings with the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Adm. Mike Mullen stunned even some of his staff by championing the end of a policy “which forced young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” It was Powell himself who shaped that policy 17 years ago and marched it to the White House, to be blessed by a sexually wanton president.

Only weeks ago, the general locked in an emotional exchange with the senator at a private event in Washington. At first, Powell assumed that the New York senator was echoing the attacks he has endured for well over a decade. But as a leader of the movement in Congress to repeal the policy, Gillibrand seized the chance to tease out the thinking behind Powell’s vociferous resistance to her efforts.

“[Powell] also made the extremely thoughtful point that in most cases, wives of servicemen have uprooted their lives….They sacrifice everything. Many spouses had tremendous concern about raising their children alongside children of gay couples.”

“It wasn’t so much the armed service members that he was concerned about, whether they could accommodate such a policy change,” Gillibrand told me in an exclusive interview.

“But you have to remember that family members live in very close quarters on military bases,” she explained, recalling Powell’s words. “He said you just have to have sensitivity that people have different backgrounds and different personal views towards gay marriage and marriage equality.”

Powell was alluding to religious and evangelical families, whose numbers have vastly increased in the years since his face-saving idea was made official military policy. Gillibrand herself is Catholic. She supports marriage equality but respects the many Catholics who do not.

“I hadn’t thought of this angle,” Gillibrand told me. “I did not take Colin Powell’s comments as aggressive—I could sense they were coming from real heartfelt emotion and his deep commitment to military families. It gave me a very good context for going forward in these hearings.”

The wives’ and families’ perspective is rarely expressed in passionate debates about this policy. Powell’s office confirms what he has said on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell publicly: “For the past two years, I have expressed the view that it was time for the law to be reviewed by Congress.”

Another witness to the lively exchange further characterized Powell’s concerns. Theoretically, a repeal of the policy would allow gay couples to live openly, with freedom and integrity, side by side with their fellow soldiers. A decade and a half ago, this prospect was the emotional epicenter of resistance among rank-and-file military families.

“You would have families of same-sex marriages or unions, sometimes raising children who attend schools, on the bases,” said this Washington source.

“The general also made the extremely thoughtful point that in most cases, wives of servicemen have uprooted their lives. They move where the military tells them, they live in housing the military assigns to them, they raise their kids and send their kids to school where the military tells them. They sacrifice everything. Many spouses had tremendous concern about raising their children alongside children of gay couples.”

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Seventeen years ago military leaders were hypersensitive to such a bold change in military culture. But even the general acknowledged in his conversation with the senator that the country has changed; the military has changed; the world has changed. Polls show that a majority of Americans now support openly gay service.

But Powell’s policy was also imposed a full generation ago—in 1993—before jihad was a clarion call to Muslim suicide bombers, before President George W. Bush’s preemptive wars, before American soldiers had to endure year-long separations from their families four and five times over to redeploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most important, it was before evangelicals looked at the military as a mission field for religious transformation. The 15,000 members of the Officers’ Christian Fellowship now employ active efforts to “reclaim territory for Christ in the military” on 80 percent of American bases. These spiritual warriors do not accept the constitutional division between church and state. Today, according to Jeff Sharlet in Harper’s, more than two-thirds of the military’s 2,900 active-duty chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations.

Based on data from the 2000 Census, the non-partisan Urban Insititute estimates that 36,000 gay men and lesbians are on active military duty. The number goes up to 65,000 when National Guard and reserves are counted.

Adm. Mullen himself acknowledged that he does not know “how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars,” and “that there will be some disruption in the force, I cannot deny.” He also said he has not had conversations with all of his senior staff about his personal commitment to overturn DADT.

How is this turnaround playing on American Army bases?

Command Sgt. Major Teresa King oversees the training of all drill sergeants in the Army, at Fort Jackson. She tolerates no slack, but she also acts as a mentor, teacher, even big sister, in counseling sessions with soldiers when she spots anyone having difficulty or showing signs of depression. She is the leading proponent of the Army’s new emotional Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program with its emphasis on expressing hidden feelings and learning how to change perspectives.

“Any person who is happy at home is a happy soldier,” she said, proud of teaching new communications skills to 700 drill-sergeant recruits in the last month. I asked Sgt. Major King if problems come up with gay soldiers who are not permitted to live with or even kiss goodbye their partners, who cannot live on base.

“I don’t know any soldiers who are gay or lesbian,” she said, uncharacteristically evasive. Her reply reflects the imposed deaf, dumb, and blind policy. She cannot touch this issue in her private counseling sessions with her drill sergeant recruits.

According to Gillibrand, “We have lost 16,000 personnel because of this policy, more than 800 in mission-critical areas.” These are soldiers who have been discharged for revealing their sexual orientation or who have been outed by third parties, often jilted lovers.

Sgt. Major King said she hasn’t heard strong feelings expressed by straight soldiers and their wives against dropping the ban on honesty about sexual orientation. “The soldiers I work around are very professional, they would not judge someone based on their sexual orientation,” she said. “However, I think that they’re like me: If our commander in chief tells us to execute something, we, as soldiers, would do that.”

How does she feel, personally, about allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly?

“Soldiers are soldiers,” she said, reflecting her own position as the highest-ranking female noncommissioned officer in the Army. She does not look upon herself as a woman or African-American but as a soldier. “Soldiers are soldiers,” she insisted, “I love ’em all.”

To learn how an African-American Christian soldier might view this potential earthquake in Army culture, I called Sergeant First Class Anthony Gantt at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Having interviewed this mild-mannered platoon leader before, I knew that he was a nondenominational, charismatic Christian with a family of five children, from ages 3 to 15.

I asked whether he was upset that Colin Powell had recanted his own policy.

“Not at all, because I consider myself biblically based, so I will respond, not react,” he said. He and his wife do not condone homosexuality. “We teach our children to pray for people who don’t know any better. If the ban is lifted, I would educate my children about what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, quoting the Book of Leviticus: ‘If a man lies with another man, as if with a woman, then his blood would be upon them’—meaning stoning.”

And when he is dealing with the 66 soldiers under his command? “I can’t choose who my soldiers are and I can’t let my personal feelings interfere,” he said. But he has profound reservations about the divisions it could create within a unit.

“The peer pressure is mostly homophobic,” he told me. “That means isolation of the gay soldier, or intimidation when he goes into the showers. If he becomes the black sheep of the unit, how would that affect soldiers’ morale and work ethic?”

Gantt paints an even darker picture of the rupture when soldiers are deployed in a hostile war zone and a lone gay soldier would be without his reference group. “What’s it like when he goes out on patrol? We judge. We’re humans. Army regs say soldiers are supposed to look like, talk alike, and march in lockstep with one another. When you go against that and have people who stick out, you undermine the cohesion of the unit.”

UPDATE: This article originally stated Sen. Gillibrand held the hearings with Adm. Mullen. It has been updated to reflect that she instead attended the hearing.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair, and can be found at gailsheehy.com