Interview: Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Aug 3rd, 2009 By Hahn at Home Read more in: Feature, GLBTQ
As a nearly 21-year-old-sergeant, I was working as an intelligence analyst in the cryptographic section of a large military site in Germany. My boss, a sergeant first class, was transferring to a new section. He wanted to take me with him. He lined up a temporary assignment for my last few months there running the consolidated intelligence library which was woefully in need of rehabilitation. Our officer in charge was a newly minted major named Claudia Kennedy.
Even then I felt Major Kennedy was someone to admire. Professional, polished, and with an air of someone who was going places. She had entered the military during the height of the Vietnam War and served as an intelligence officer in Germany and Korea when very few women had entrée into the field. In those days, there were very few women leaders in any service.
Oddly enough, one of my Facebook friends served in the US Air Force at the same location and time and he too remembers Kennedy. Bill Diamond stated, “I remember her because I was a very lonely and rather reclusive little zoomie boy (ed. Note: Airman). During one particularly morose mid(night shift), I remember a Captain Kennedy who came and sat down with me in the mess because she thought I needed someone to talk to. I’ve been loyal to her ever since and she’s the very model of what a leader is, should be and hopefully, one day, a President will be.”
Life would go on and little did I know that over 20 years later, Claudia Kennedy would retire from her last position as Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence having to that point achieved the highest rank of any women ever in the US Army – Lieutenant General, a 3-star general. The first woman 4-star in any service would not be nominated until eight years after Kennedy’s retirement.
Kennedy is an outspoken proponent of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy which while originally intended to stem the tide of the unnecessary discharge of GLB troops, in fact did not slow the discharges to any great degree. She is an active liberal, having been an advisor to presidential candidate John Kerry, and on the list of potential vice presidential candidates for Barack Obama. She is also the author of Generally Speaking, a memoir about her Army career.
I had a conversation with General Kennedy for the first time in 27 years this week.
Hahn: What is the difference between DADT and the previous policy of discharging gays in the military?
Kennedy: I need to qualify this by saying this is my personal opinion of the difference, but if I were in a casual conversation I’d say before DADT a commander or leader could ask and a soldier could tell and the military could pursue. It was my understanding as I watched DADT – and remember there’s a third part to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – Don’t Pursue – unfold in the 1990s it was an attempt to make a step forward without changing the policy in a comprehensive way but it would limit how much leadership would pursue into the life of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person.
I interpreted it initially as an attempt to find some middle ground that would permit change, but not so much change that military culture would have to accommodate a really big change. And what it turned into, when you look at the numbers, is a lot of people still were discharged.
Ed Note: According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), just since January 20th and the swearing in of President Obama and the 111th Congress, 326 servicemembers have been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Hahn: I know a number of retired military officers have spoken out against DADT. According to the Washington Post, over 1,000 flag and general officers signed an open letter to President Obama in 2009 supporting the repeal of DADT.
Kennedy: I’m on a list of people who are against torture, against this anti-gay culture and a couple of other things and I do think there are several people working in a direction that says, “Let’s not try to impose our personal behavior on every single person in every instance.”
There is so much diversity in the military – why would this not be an area that would help us? Because generally diversity strengthens an organization. Why would this aspect of diversity not have a strengthening effect?
I think it’s part of the thinking of some people who say there’s also a very pragmatic thing here. Nevermind the aspect of social justice; think about what happens to the integrity of the force when on the one hand we say, “Tell the truth,” and on the other hand, we say, “But, not that truth. All truths but that one.” That’s very, very damaging to the cohesiveness and integrity of a big institution like the military.
Hahn: Which is ironic and counter-intuitive compared to what some military leadership is saying – that allowing gays to serve openly in the military would be damaging to military readiness and esprit de corps.
Kennedy: Remember, we heard that argument around race, around gender, and sexual orientation. It’s the last cry of a culture that says there is only one way to behave.
Hahn: I would definitely compare it to the integration of blacks into white units in the 1940s. What is it exactly the leadership is afraid will happen? Is it the logistics of it – the potential to have to provide separate sleeping and toileting facilities – or is it something like the ingrained prejudice and potential for violence against gay SM that they are worried about, or something else completely?
Kennedy: You mean why is there a dragging of feet about changing it?
Kennedy: This is a complicated answer, and I don’t know how you’ll translate it to paper. But, I think it’s easier – and people get excited when you say this – I think it’s easier to deal with race and gender than sexual orientation. Because someone who wants to advocate for a minority race sitting as a member of the majority race can still kind of keep their life clear – they’re white advocating for (a minority). So they don’t have to deal with being brushed with the stigma of race while advocating for another race.
Same with gender. Nobody thinks this man who is a feminist is now going to become a woman, so he doesn’t have to be brushed with the stigma of being a woman.
So, then when you take a look at sexual orientation, when a member of a majority group of heterosexuals advocates for homosexuals, they need to be willing to be brushed with the, “Maybe you’re a homosexual” stigma. I think that’s much harder to do.
Step 1 is taking on your own beliefs.
Step 2 is being willing to speaking up for the group that is being unfairly treated and there’s this extra overlay of, “Well, maybe you’re really not a man, maybe you’re not really white, maybe you’re not really heterosexual.”
And part of the growth of the individual or society is to say, “And, let me ask again, why do you care, what makes that so important?” It’s the least important quality a soldier brings to the table – their race, their gender or their sexual orientation. I can’t think of any three things that are less relevant to their performance as soldiers.
Part of the reason this is a little more difficult is it’s the greatest minority – in other words the fewest number of people. The other part of it is that there is a huge misunderstanding by those who have not been exposed in any particular way to family members or friends to GLB people and the most primitive misunderstanding that homosexuals are pedophiles – no, completely separate things. The next misunderstanding, and there’s still debate around it and I don’t know how legitimate is or if it’s just political posturing, that homosexuality is a choice versus something you’re born to be. There is not a common understanding of the belief I have that this is not a choice someone makes but you are born that way and at some point you discover it.
The third would be willing to stand up and be counted as someone who believes this is not really important. That this is none of my business.
Hahn: There’s a view by some in my community that President Obama is not making the sweeping changes he indicated he’d make. What are the biggest challenges facing him in that regard?
Kennedy: He’s got to mop up after eight years of incompetent government. That government got hijacked by people who had many agendas, and none of those agendas had the best interests of our country or the people of our country at heart.
He’s only been in office for seven or eight months. I think he’s being criticized on two fronts, one he’s not doing enough and two, why he’s taking on all those things. I saw him respond in an interview, and he said something like, “You know, I don’t sit here and think about what I want to do, I look at what’s presented to me, I look at the state of our economy and our state of military readiness and education and healthcare and say we need to get to work.”
However ardently President Obama feels that homosexuals should be given the same respect we give heterosexuals, I don’t think he would be inclined, I’m just guessing, but I don’t see any evidence that his approach is to just declare by fiat that there will be this change. There’s this huge culture shift that has to take place. He doesn’t want to drive from ditch to ditch – he wants to find the road and find the speediest part of the road and go in the right direction. I trust he’s going to do the best he can and the pressure is not so much on him as it should be on ourselves, it’s sort of like that Pogo cartoon, “I have met the enemy and they is us.”
It’s very frustrating when people have waited for centuries. And really, our expectations about how we treat each other has been created in the way that it is now just in the last 50 years. I’m 62 and I know how people talked about this issue 10 years ago and 50 years ago. I remember. We have moved a long distance. And that doesn’t help if you have a Matthew Shepard being murdered or have people being hounded out of a profession that they have contributed to in the most honorable way and aren’t appreciated. I think all of that is very damaging and very much on the conscience of anyone who understands how unfair this is.
We have to say, “What am I doing every day, even if it’s small? What am I doing to make this situation better?” Part of it is we all need to get out there and shout from the rooftops that this is wrong. And, even if we’re heterosexual and afraid someone might be accused of the worst thing ever (laughs) we need to stop it. We need to stop being afraid. Speak what you know is the right thing. We need more voices to join the chorus. There are those who need a few more voices before they join the chorus.
Perhaps that super majority (in the Senate) will help.
Well, it’s the Gladwell Tipping Point thing.
Hahn: When you were a field commander and you had to discharge a gay soldier, what were your thoughts?
Kennedy: You know once you get to a certain point in your career you’re not the company commander or the battalion commander, so you’re far removed and don’t know the personal stories. But, I do remember once as a brigade commander of the 703rd Military Intelligence Brigade in Hawaii, I knew this very wonderful Chinese linguist. I thought the world of him. I spent a good deal of time with him because he would brief us on the content of what he was doing but also the Language Olympics he was the leader of one year.
He did a wonderful job with the Chinese linguists at the brigade and the Language Olympics sponsored by the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey. Part of that was a triumph of numbers because we had a large number of Chinese linguists. Part of it was he was a terrific leader and a great linguist and he knew how to get the most out of people.
It was some time after that someone told me about the preparatory movements that were taking place prior to a discharge. He himself had written a letter making those declarations about himself. My first reaction was to talk to his sergeant major (the highest enlisted leader in any Army unit) and have him tell the linguist to tear up the letter and be quiet! Shut up! I don’t care, no one cares, get back to work!
The sergeant major assured me he’d played that with him a couple rounds. The soldier was absolutely certain of what he wanted to do and we did as he asked. We discharged him. I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was a waste of talent, I thought it was not healthy for him to quit, I don’t think he was being harassed – though I suppose on some level there may have been harassment it’s just part of the noise just like it is for women. I thought it was terrific loss for the Army and for our linguistic readiness.
I thought it was too bad younger soldiers saw him leaving the Army because it creates fear. Especially among those with a little less talent – they think these processes are so mysterious it makes something that is fairly straightforward even more frightening, I don’t think it’s necessary.
Hahn: I’m glad we have you out there advocating for such important causes – and not just this one.
Kennedy: I was glad to get your photo because I do remember you, but I had to laugh when I saw Bailey’s beanie on your head. (Ed Note: BG Mildred Bailey designed the most unattractive uniforms for women that were worn by women soldiers in the late 70s and early 80s.
Hahn: Ah, man…yes, that was so bad.
Lieutenant General Kennedy spoke at the SLDN National Dinner in 2006. A transcript of her speech is located at http://repealdadt.blogspot.com/.Lori Hahn AWOP contributing editor, GLBTQAuthor of Hahn at Home
Tags: Claudia Kennedy, DADT, Don't ask don't tell, Military Culture, Repeal DADT, SLDN