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Nathaniel Frank, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow, Palm Center
University of California, Santa Barbara

I was not the only one of my friends who fought back tears last fall when I watched Colin Powell describe why he was endorsing Barack Obama for president.  Here was a man who was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, and knew a thing or two about both racism in America and the power of the American dream to transcend it.  A direct beneficiary of the post World-War-II racial integration of the military, Powell became the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the country.  Once considered one of the most admired men in America for his military leadership during the first Gulf War, many thought he might become the first African American occupant of the White House.

He is also a Republican.  But he crossed party lines to back Obama and spoke for ten eloquent minutes without notes on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to explain why: He spoke of Obama and his generation as “transformational,” “aspirational” and “inclusive,” and of McCain’s campaign as becoming “narrower and narrower.” He said Obama is crossing ethnic, racial and generational lines to bring people together.  And in response to charges that Obama is a Muslim, Powel spoke out movingly not only against this false charge, but against the implication that somehow being Muslim was the worst thing in the world: “The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.”  In that statement, delivered with a no-nonsense force and passion that has made the General famous, Powell didn’t only defend Obama, he defended all of America, and what it stands for.

It was refreshing to see such strong leadership displayed even in the few minutes of Powell’s interview.  But despite his reputation as a great leader, Powell has not always led.  In 2003, he made a flawed case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Since then, the nation has learned that he had grave misgivings about going along with the invasion, yet he let himself serve as a chief spokesman for the Bush White House in making that case.  Speaking of the disastrous war in Iraq, former Secretary of State James Baker has said that Powell was “the one guy who could have perhaps prevented this from happening.”

As I began researching my new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, I looked into Powell’s past to understand what I could about his personality, about what drove him and what shaped his approach to leadership.  As with the case for the Iraq War, Powell has been criticized for playing the lead role in sustaining a ban on gay and lesbian troops.  While advocates of equal rights compared the gay ban to racial segregation in the military, Powell forcefully rejected the analogy, and his stature as a top African American general put the issue to rest.  Rear Admiral John Hutson, a high-ranking official who was part of the talks over whether to lift the gay ban, recalls in my book that “Powell put a hole in the analogy to racial integration, not particularly logically, but just by force of his personality and who he was.”  Hutson said it allowed the rest of the military leadership to “hide” behind Powell.  It allowed other champions of anti-gay discrimination to say, “this isn’t the same as racial integration.  This is different, and General Powell says so.”  Powell was probably the one guy who could have prevented “don’t ask, don’t tell” from becoming law.

It is true that the issue of race and the issue of sexuality are very different in detail.  What is eerily similar, though, is the string of arguments that were used against both blacks and gays equal treatment in the military. In the 1940s, America was told that whites would not respect or obey commands by an African American; that integration would prompt violence against a despised minority and would lower public acceptance of the military; that the military should not be used for “social experimentation”; that military integration was being used to further a larger minority rights agenda, which would ultimately break the armed forces; that God’s plan was to keep whites above blacks; that blacks had a higher incidence of disease; and that forcing whites to share intimate quarters with blacks was an unacceptable invasion of white privacy.  Every last one of these arguments was used to oppose gay service in the 1990s.  As Congressman Barney Frank put it, “Saying we can’t have gay people in the military because heterosexuals won’t like them is like saying we can’t have black people around because white people won’t like them.  That was wrong, and this is wrong.”

When I was conducting my research, I set out to assess honestly whether the chief players in creating “don’t ask, don’t tell” were motivated by genuine concern for the needs of the military or by hostility to gays and lesbians.  While Powell went out of his way to avoid insulting gay people, and indeed spoke of them as “proud, brave, loyal, good Americans,” it is essential to compare his moral leadership on race with his role in setting back the cause of equality for gays and lesbians.

Powell had written early in his career that the military “affords the opportunity for advancement that regrettably is not in every part of our society,” but that he hoped would “spread to all parts of our society so that only achievement and performance will be the basis for advancement.” He described his generation as one “where almost all barriers have now been dropped.”  It is fair to assume that his experience as an African American made him a bit more mindful of the victimization of Muslim Americans.  The experience of being black and being Muslim in America are quite different, but as someone who has suffered from racial discrimination, Powell was able to notice and oppose an ugly episode of discrimination against other victims beyond his own group.

Not so gay Americans.  By repeating ad nauseam that the service of open gays would harm “order and discipline,” and would be “difficult to accommodate,” Powell legitimized prejudice in the ranks.  Unlike his moving comments about Muslim Americans, Powell said it was not for him to “make a moral judgment” about whether being gay was “a correct lifestyle or not.”  If he had made the comment as a precursor to defending diversity and equal rights in America, that would have been one thing; but instead he made the remarks to rationalize his own failure to support equal treatment.  It was what Admiral Hutson called a “moral passing of the buck.”

Now imagine what true moral leadership might have looked like from Powell on gay Americans.  To the question, is someone in the military gay, and is that okay? Powell might have answered this way: “The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being gay in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.”  In that statement, which Powell has yet to make, he would have defended not just gay Americans, but all of America, and what it stands for.

Nathaniel Frank is the author of Unfriendly Fire, the definitive story of “don’t ask, don’t tell” written by the nation’s most widely-recognized expert on the policy.

Drawing on decades of research on gay service and hundreds of exclusive interviews with policymakers, government officials, academics and service members, the book shows the cruel and unaffordable costs of the current gay ban.

©  2009  Gay Military Signal