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Air Force Academy Professor’s Continuing Education

by Jim Kinzer
Major, USAF (Ret.)

In 1993, with the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, it seemed to me reasonable to believe, based on his campaign promise, that the ban on gays in the military was finally going to end – perhaps not immediately, perhaps not even for a few years, but inevitably, and soon.

As a gay Air Force officer with 13 years of active duty at the time, I fully expected the change to occur before I was eligible to retire seven years down the road. And my academic colleagues and I, on the faculty of the Political Science Department at the Air Force Academy, debated the topic over lunch, just as we discussed other issues of the day. I argued for ending the ban, but was careful not to “out” myself by keeping the argument abstract, not personal. Then, when the National Defense Colloquium, an annual public debate sponsored by the departments of Political Science, History and Law, announced “Gays in the Military” as its topic for the spring panel discussion, I was asked to be the panel member supporting the open integration of gays into the military, based on my advocacy of that position. Despite the risk of being perceived as gay, I gladly accepted the task.

From the vantage point of today, six years after my retirement, and many thousands of gay military discharges later, my participation on that panel may seem either quaintly naive or boldly stupid, but it didn’t feel particularly courageous to me then. I merely wanted the pro-gay viewpoint to be well- represented in the argument. I offered what I thought were reasoned responses to the prevailing prejudices of the time, trying to refute the notion that allowing gays to serve openly would be divisive and somehow harmful to the military. My arguments were well-received. Indeed, the heads of all three departments, all full colonels, complimented me afterwards, and my opinion was sought when the Dean of Faculty went to the Pentagon a few weeks later to present his views on the issue of integrating gay cadets and officers into the Air Force Academy.

But, as we all know, integration was not forthcoming. Not surprisingly, my own life itself was segregated: I had my closeted professional life, and my gay personal life. In the department, I would go to military social functions, but always alone, never with a woman as a cover. In conversation, I would steer clear of talk of women, and would play the pronoun game (changing he to she) if I talked about my weekend activities. Off duty, I would date, and go to gay clubs, but usually in Denver, an hour north of the Academy. This wall of separation had served me reasonably well as a junior officer, but a single field grade officer stands out when more than 90% are married.

Then one night in 1995, all that changed. On a Friday night after a hard week, I wanted to go out just to be around people like me. I went to the local gay bar, in a strip mall in Colorado Springs, and saw one guy I knew slightly talking to two young men. When I introduced myself, one of them asked me what I did. I told him that I taught Political Science. He asked me where, and I told him, never considering lying about it. He snapped his fingers and said, “I knew it! You substituted for my teacher last week.” I was stunned. My carefully-built wall had crumbled in an instant.

The funny thing was, however, that nothing traumatic happened. The two cadets I met, were, of course, gay themselves, so they weren’t about to reveal my secret. Over time, I befriended them, and through them, met other gay cadets. During the school week, some of them would stop by my cubicle, or call or email, just to chat. It’s not that I had any particular words of wisdom to offer, just that I was there, living proof that it was possible to be a gay Air Force officer and a pilot. I listened to their concerns, both mundane and profound, and offered career advice as well as personal advice. I had become a mentor for these ten or so gay cadets, something that was missing from their lives, and something I wish I had when I was a cadet myself. For the next several years I followed the progression of these cadets, being introduced to some more junior ones as the others advanced. I enjoyed the role, and marveled at the confidence and comfort in their sexual identities that they possessed compared to me when I was in their shoes in the 1970s .

Most of those cadets graduated and became officers in the Air Force; most are still in, serving with distinction, but remaining in the closet. I retired in 2000 and have another profession, but I’m still in close contact with several of these men and women, and we talk about their plans to take another assignment or to get out and live more openly as a civilian. I wonder, all these years later, how long it will take before the United States joins other Western democracies in allowing gays to serve openly. And I wonder how many more soldiers, sailors and airmen will face the choice between serving their country in the closet or getting out and being able to live and love openly.