Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.
I was stationed on Guam in the mid-1980s. My squadron flew search and rescue while on the island and made regular deployments to sea. Aside from my duties as a naval aviator, I was also a division officer and had enlisted men and women reporting to me. Guam is only 13 degrees north of the equator—beach weather every day. Most military people used the military beaches; I was one of the folks who liked to travel around the island.
That's how I discovered one of my men was gay. He was on the beach with his boyfriend, and although there was nothing going on that couldn't be in a G-rated movie, there was no doubt that they meant more to each other than two buddies enjoying a day in the sun. When he looked my way, he froze, and I saw a flicker of fear on his face. These were the days before "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), so his legal problems would have been criminal, not administrative.
I did what needed to be done: I walked over, said hello to my sailor and introduced myself to his boyfriend. We chatted about the nice weather and I bid them a good day and left the beach so they could relax. We never discussed it again.
Fast forward to 2008. I was driving home on a Friday afternoon, looking forward to a summer weekend, when my cell phone rang. It was a 202 area-code number (Washington, D.C.) and since I'm a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel (CEP), I thought it might be important, so I answered it. It turned out to be an acquaintance, retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett. He asked me, "When are you going to talk to Admiral [Mike] Mullen (now retired) about ending 'don't ask, don't tell'?" (Watch an exclusive interview with Visconti and Admiral Mullen.)
I responded, "Great idea. How am I going to get an appointment with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs?" and he gave me an insight: Admiral Mullen had appointed me to be on the CEP—he'd take my call.
I thought about it over the weekend, emailed Admiral Mullen on Sunday and had an appointment almost immediately.
The Pentagon is an enormous building, and although I feel like I've been all over it through the years, I had never been to his part of the building. It surprised me that the chairman's office is fairly convenient to the entrance of the building. Admiral Mullen's office is contemporarily styled—not plush, not overdone or officious, but tasteful. I was ushered into Admiral Mullen's office. He's a disarmingly pleasant man; you can tell he grew up in Southern California.
We talked for an hour. I showed him research that illustrated how younger people simply didn't care about orientation and that the nation had moved on. In closing, I said, "I knew people who were gay when I was on active duty. I'd imagine you know people who are gay too. Isn't this just about taking care of our shipmates?" Although it would have been inappropriate for him to agree, I could see acknowledgment in his eyes.
On the way out, he let me open his office door. It must have weighed 400 pounds. He chuckled and told he gets everyone with that surprise.
We had one more meeting. Through Jamie and the good people at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (especially their director, Aubrey Sarvis), I was able to gather a group of retired senior officers—both gay and heterosexual—to talk about how ending DADT would be the opposite of disruptive; it would unburden the thousands of active-duty service people who are not heterosexual. We talked about how they could stop living a lie, and how the people who knew the orientation of their friends could stop living a lie. One person of our group described freezing in fear every time they were unexpectedly called into their boss's office—would this be the end of a career?
In February 2010, Admiral Mullen stepped up and took care of his shipmates. He said this to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." He also said, "I have served with homosexuals since 1968." He added, "Everybody in the military has, and we understand that."
Later that day he tweeted, "Stand by what I said: Allowing homosexuals to serve openly is the right thing to do. It comes down to integrity."
This year, I attended the annual Servicemembers Legal Defense Network dinner. A sense of victory was in the air. There were about 1,200 people there, many of them retired military—almost all gay—and in their uniforms. LGBT-rights pioneer Colonel Cammermeyer was there, as well as many of the group that went with me for the second meeting with Admiral Mullen—one with their same-sex spouse (having been legally able to marry). I wore miniature wings on my tux and shook hands with many fellow naval aviators. They played video clips during an intermission; when Admiral Mullen came on, he received a rousing round of applause. I couldn't have been prouder to be an American and a veteran.
Admiral Mullen has prepared the military for the change; there was a survey, then training, then more testimony to Congress. Today it all ends. I'm sure it will be a huge non-event for those on active duty. Although gay people have served our country since the Revolution, they've never been able to serve openly until now. Although it seems trivial to heterosexual people who never had to fear, now we can ALL talk about what we did on the weekend.
There are those who have sent me hate mail saying that LGBT rights are not civil rights. That gay people can hide who they are. There are those who send me nasty email asking, "Why should I know what orientation a person is?" There are those who proclaim to be heterosexual but obsess about "converting" gay people to being heterosexual. All I can say is, "Haters gonna hate." I wouldn't hide my orientation; it's disgusting to me that any American should have to. Gay rights don't impinge on hetero rights. It's anti-American to deny a group the rights that others enjoy if it doesn't limit their own rights. I wouldn't want to work in an environment where I don't know who my coworkers' loved ones are—it's too long a work week to be that isolated. And finally, unless someone is having sex on the hood of your car, why don't you mind your own business and think about the root cause of your obsessions?
It's bad business to discriminate. It destroys productivity and brand image. I'm sorry, but there's no free ride. You can't get away with donating money to anti-gay people without damaging your brand; you can't pass ordinances, laws and state constitutional amendments that limit gay rights and not expect progressive companies to shy away—and your best and brightest to not move out. LGBT rights are every bit civil rights, and as the ADA was a continuation of our nation's civil-rights era, the long overdue death of DADT is another milestone toward justice.
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