We have to admit: we were a little scared to interview Reichen Lehmkuhl about his new book, Here’s What We’ll Say.
Our fear stemmed not from nerves over interviewing a so-called “celebrity,” nor did they come from some deep-seeded attraction to the former Amazing Racer turned activist.
We were actually afraid that we’d end up offending him. Much to our surprise, however, we didn’t. In fact, we weren’t even tempted. Shocking, right?
As we made our introductions, touching on the fact that Reichen’s from Cincinnati (love the 513) and a mutual love for The Grateful Dead, it occurred to us that maybe we were wrong to criticize him: maybe Reichen’s actually a really nice, sincere guy whose using his elevated social status for good.
And, you know what, we were right: he’s nice, he’s informative, and he’s nothing if not passionate.
Did the entire experience make us want to worship him? We’d really rather not say.
What we can say, however, is that Reichen made a point of mentioning he was going to “Justin’s” fashion show later in the evening (Timberlake, that is: apparently they’re on a first name basis, which is good, because Reichen basically only goes by his first name).
Anyway, after the jump, read what Reichen had to say for himself, including his opinions on Christianity in the armed forces, the very special message he has for his critics, and how he’s already started his second book.
Queerty: What was your motivation for writing Hereâ€™s What Weâ€™ll Say?
Reichen Lehmkuhl: First, [it] was kind of therapy for myself, to go back into my childhood and recall all the things that threw out a lot of my life I was afraid to talk about with anybody.
The second reason was to expose the horrendous system of abuse of gay people – not just in the US armed forces, but in particular at our nations service academies. For me, I had my own reasons to make a lot of my personal life public. My main reason was to take my personal life and make it public to teach people [about] whatâ€™s happening behind closed doors, so we can all get a view of it and start to act up on our own to try and make it better.
QT:: Have you gotten word from your old comrades and teachers?
RL: Yeah, itâ€™s amazing. Iâ€™ve received so many emails from people who have come out of nowhere: people that Iâ€™ve lost touch with, old supervisors who are still on active duty… The reaction has been a mixed bag. Some of them say to me, â€œYou know, if you had ever told me you are gay while you were in, I would have protected you, I would have kept it secret, you never had to hide that from me.â€ Others, you know, have a different view on thingsâ€¦
QT: One thing that you mention in the book is that you had worked in the ROTC admissions office. You write, â€œâ€¦As an officer, I worked with ROTC admissions, and realized how much of an advantage minorities actually have in the ROTC and academy admission processes.â€ How do you think the admissions process should work?
RL: I never said in the book that the admissions process was faulty or wrong. I basically pointed out that minorities in the admission process had a great advantage. We would go to admission meetings as officers and be told, â€œHey, we are actively looking for minorities out there that are qualified.â€ We were actively going after different races of people so that all races are represented within the air force, because there are lots of minority groups in this country that are not able to be represented, simply because they do not have the means to communicate through their school systems and through their governments and to win and be exposed to scholarships and be exposed to scholarships and ROTC scholarships.
QT: Do you think the personal should be the political? That is, do you think that everyone should mine their personal experience to steer their political views?
RL: Absolutely. I think that weâ€™re a country thatâ€™s made up of individual voters â€“ we vote individually on what we see is wrong or right in the environment that is around us. So, if we see that somethingâ€™s wrong in our personal life, we have the benefit and the privilege in this country to vote to make something better that we see that is not right around us. So, yeah, I think that is very important to bring your personal experiences into a political landscape by being a voter or being an activist.
QT: That said, how can people with different personal experiences and thus different politics work together?
RL: Do you mean as far as Republicans and Democrats?
QT: It could be that, or it could be black people and gay people, queer people and gay peopleâ€¦
RL: I think that [with] the ban on gays in the military, thereâ€™s an incredible similarity between gay people and minority populations, such as black people or American Indians or women. Itâ€™s documented in the Civil War is that the reason commanders didnâ€™t want black people to serve in the [same] unit was because Black people may lower the morale of the people in the military unit who were already serving. So, in other words, letâ€™s not bring black people into the unit, because it might offend the people who are in the unit who are prejudice against black people â€“ that was ridiculous. Weâ€™ve evolved as a population and weâ€™ve evolved as a society. Now we allow minorities in the military and we tell the people who are prejudiced within the military of those minorities to deal with it…
We did the same thing to women: we told women they couldnâ€™t come in the military, because they might offend the men in the military who didnâ€™t want women there. Now we bring them into the military and we council the men and we say, â€œOkay, these are the needs of women, this is what women contribute to the armed forced.â€ There is zero tolerance for discrimination in that area. Now, we have military commanders who are at the forefront of our government using the excuse of, â€œIf we let gay people in, theyâ€™ll lower the morale of the troops.â€ Are you kidding me? I mean, isnâ€™t it obvious that weâ€™re repeating history and using the same lame excuse that weâ€™ve used to keep minorities and women out of the military in the past. Itâ€™s an abomination. Itâ€™s time that we wake up and look that weâ€™re repeating history. Minorities and women can band together with this agenda to lift the ban on gay people in the military, because as a society, itâ€™s really taking us out of the realm of first world country. We need to be able to answer to the prejudice that we [do] have and itâ€™s time! And thatâ€™s what I want to do! Sorry, I get really upsetâ€¦
QT: No, no, itâ€™s good to be passionate.
RL: But, did you get my logic?
QT: Yes, [we] definitely get your logic, of course. Thank you. Do you think weâ€™ll ever see an end to donâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tell?
RL: Absolutely. If I have it my way, itâ€™s going to come very soon. I want to bring as much light upon the subject as possible, especially in this time of the upcoming election. I want the next presidential candidate to answer to the issues that I have in my book about the way that people are treated at our nationâ€™s service academies. These are young men and women who have been appointed into government positions by US Congressmen, by US Senators, and by the Vice-President of the United States. You canâ€™t get into any of these institutions without a personal nomination from one of these political people. Not only that, these young men and women â€“ if theyâ€™re not valedictorians, theyâ€™re on the verge of being valedictorians, they have SAT and ACT scores that are through the roof. They have displayed leadership in their high schools that is unprecedented in the population of kids today. So, youâ€™ve got these kinds of kids [and] when theyâ€™re being found out as being gay, theyâ€™re being treated like crap. We should be completely ashamed of what weâ€™re doing!
QT: Your nomination for school came from Barney Frankâ€¦obviously youâ€™re not anti-gays in politics. Letâ€™s talk about Mark Foley for a second: have you been following [the scandal]?
RL: Very minimally.
QT: Well, thereâ€™s a debate about whether people in the public eye, specifically politicians, but also celebrities should be outed. Do you think if someoneâ€™s in the closet, they deserve to be outed?
RL: Absolutely not. If someone wants to live their life in complete privacy or in partial privacy, thatâ€™s their choice… I donâ€™t think that anyone should be forced to disclose [his or her] sexual orientation at anytime to anyone, unless itâ€™s a voluntary choice. I think that â€“ as far as the gentlemen youâ€™re talking about, this was related to criminal activity, am I right?
QT: Um -
RL: I donâ€™t want to blend the issues here, I believe that if we were to allow homosexuals to the military, if they bring sex to work, they should be punished just the same as a heterosexual person who brings sex to work in the military. I think it should be equal for both. Whenever thereâ€™s criminal activity that is not in line with the mission of military service, then there needs to be rules and regulations that are followed. However, I do not believe that being able to be out in the military and tell someone, â€œhey, Iâ€™m gay, or tell someone, Iâ€™ve got a boyfriend or a girlfriend, just the same as straight person can say, â€œhey, Iâ€™m straight and I have a boyfriend or a girlfriend and weâ€™re getting married or we went camping this weekend, or anything. I think that gay people in the military should be able to be honest about their lives.
QT: Letâ€™s shift gears here for a second and talk about the chapter â€œSchooledâ€ in your book. You talk about how the Air Force has many vocal Christian â€œadherents.â€ How do you feel about such a strong link between religion and the armed forces?
RL: In my own experience, the armed forces [were] predominately Christian. The values that the military held when I was there were heavily backed up by Christian principles. I happen to know that many Christians feel that they should interpret The Bible as being gay is an abomination. Therefore, there are going to be policies enacted within the military thatâ€™s very much based on the Christian principles that people misinterpret that are going to have the same sentiment: that homosexuals should even be allowed to be there. So, yeah, I definitely think thereâ€™s a correlation between the two. To sum it up, I say â€“ not that thereâ€™s a correlation between Christianity and the military discriminating against gay people, I think thereâ€™s a correlation between the misinterpretation of Christianity causing discrimination against gay people in the military. Because I am in no way against Christianity or many of Christian principles people speak of, I am very much against peopleâ€™s misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Christian ideals. Thatâ€™s what makes me the most upset.
QT: [In the book, you discuss] how you didnâ€™t have that many peers that you hung out with when you were a kid. How much of your decision to go into the air force was motivated by a desire to fit in, blend in?
RL: Actually, going into the air force academy was more of a challenge for meâ€¦ The reason that I wasnâ€™t very friendly with other kids when I was a child and the reason that I didnâ€™t have a lot of friends when I was a child was that I myself held back from getting involved in different kinds of social groups within my neighborhood because I lacked the confidence to do it. So when I went to the academy to join such an institution that has so much camaraderie, it actually scared me to death. What I found, though, was that I was pleasantly surprised by the cool group of people that I ended up meeting.
QT: And what do you have to say to people who doubt your sincerity [in writing this book]?
RL: I didnâ€™t know people did.
QT: Everybody has criticsâ€¦
RL: So, are there people that doubt it?
QT: If somebody were to doubt your sincerityâ€¦
RL: I would have to say: you know, umâ€¦â€œWhatâ€™s going on in your life to make you doubt what Iâ€™ve written in a book like this?â€ This is a book where Iâ€™ve let it all go, and I let myself go and I let everyone know about all the things that I never wanted to admit about myself or admit about the way I was brought up. For a while, what I didnâ€™t want to admit was part of an institution that I admired so much: the Air Force Academy and the other being the Air Force. So, I let it all go. If thereâ€™s someone who doubts my sincerity, all I can say, Iâ€™m sorry [they] feel that way, but itâ€™s based on nothing. Your doubt of it would be based on nothing.
QT: Do you have any plans to write more books?
RL: Yes, I just started my next one. Iâ€™m really excited. This oneâ€™s going to touch very lightly on my personal life. Youâ€™ve read my book, so you know it touches a lot on my childhood and one of my biggest self-critiques of my book is that I focused a little too much on the negative of my childhood. I didnâ€™t express a lot the non-tragic things that happened to me as a child. I had millions of very, very happy moments in my childhood and I didnâ€™t focus on that. In [the next] book, Iâ€™m going to touch on some aspects of my childhood, but then the book is really going to be about how to survive in this new world of being gay in a world where we no longer have the need to separate ourselves from the rest of the community and the rest of the population. We donâ€™t have to do that anymore. More than ever, the straight community is opening their arms to the gay community, to gay people, to gay rights. My next book is really going to focus on how we can forge that relationship with the straight community and not separate and section ourselves off so that we can more easily get along in a world where we all understand each other.