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Colin Powell (Photo: Charles Haynes, CC BY-SA 2.0).
In an appearance on CNN on May 23, 2012, retired General Colin Powell told Wolf Blitzer that he has "no problem" with President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage. He favorably compared same-sex couples raising children to his own family and said, "I don't see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married." Less admirably, however, he also attempted to rewrite a sordid chapter in his history.
In the course of the interview with Powell, Blitzer recalled that "You were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when you installed the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in the U.S. military that prevented gays from serving openly. I know you changed your attitude over these years, but what about gay marriage? Are you with the president in supporting gay marriage?"
In his response, Powell attempted to minimize his role in adopting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, in effect misrepresenting his own history. ". . . [I]t was the Congress that imposed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' though it was certainly my position and my recommendation to get us out of an even worse outcome that could have occurred, as you'll recall."
As much as I appreciate the former Secretary of State's evolution in favor of marriage equality, and indeed in favor of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" 18 years and thousands of ruined careers later, Powell cannot be allowed to rewrite history. His opposition to gay people serving openly in the military was both ugly and tenacious, and it amounted to something very near insubordination against the newly-elected Commander-in-Chief, President Bill Clinton.
When President Clinton attempted to lift the ban against gay men and lesbians from serving in the military through executive order, Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Senator Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, loudly and ferociously opposed Clinton's plan. Already criticized for his lack of military experience, the new President faced a difficult choice between fulfilling his campaign promise to gay and lesbian voters and appeasing congressional leaders and his top military advisors.
In January 1993, Clinton announced that he would seek a compromise and attempt to revise the former policy on homosexual service members into a more tolerant one. In July, after much negotiation between the White House, the Department of Defense, and Congress, he presented his proposal, which in turn, Congress heavily revised before codifying "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law.
In the Senate hearings on the bill Powell not only testified about the fears of openly gay soldiers harming unit cohesion that had already been dispelled by numerous studies paid for by the Pentagon, but he also made his famous distinction between racial and sexual minorities. He said race was a "benign characteristic" while homosexuality was a "behavioral characteristic" incompatible with military service.
The final version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" differed markedly from Clinton's original intent. It closely resembled the previous policy's restrictions on homosexual status and conduct in the military; yet, contrary to Powell's assertions in his interview with Blitzer, in many ways it was much worse than the previous policy. Instead of ending witch hunts, it accelerated them. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy made it much easier to expel gay and lesbian service members.
The law gave the military the right to read any gesture that could suggest a propensity to engage in homosexual behavior--such as having gay friends, reading gay publications, or not conforming to gender stereotypes--as indicating the gay or lesbian identity of the service member, an identity that the law presumed was incompatible with military service.
The law was implemented under Powell's direction, though he retired from the military in September 1993, three months after the law was passed. President Clinton later complained that Powell had misrepresented to him how the law would be implemented.
Powell, who later served as Secretary of State in George W. Bush's administration, cannot escape responsibility for his role in the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the military.
It is, of course, a sign of progress that Powell is embarrassed by having established "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the extent that he lies about it. He obviously wants to minimize his involvement in the adoption and implementation of an odious policy that took a huge toll on thousands of individuals and actually weakened military readiness. He knows that it is not a part of his history that future generations will find appealing.
But however much Powell may be intent on shaping his legacy by distorting history, we have a responsibility to remember even as we welcome his new support for equal rights.
In the video below, General Powell endorses marriage equality and distorts the history of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."