What This Army Officer's Exemplary Life Tells Us About Gays In The Military
If you are a regular reader of this column, you are no doubt aware that because of what we might call the state of the world, I end up writing about a lot of unpleasant stuff. Just yesterday, I filed two stories about people getting shot when all they did was make a common mistake like going to the wrong address or losing your car in a supermarket parking lot. I write about truly terrible court decisions that threaten rights we as citizens have exercised for decades. I have written extensively about Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression and the number of civilians that have been killed, whole blocks of cities that have been bombed and rocketed out of existence.
I guess if you’re going to write a column like this one, bad news and ugliness comes with the territory.
But every once in awhile something comes to pass that is truly wonderful. Today is such a day, because it gives me great pleasure to tell you that my West Point classmate, Stewart Bornhoft, will be awarded the Legacy Award by Knights Out, the association of West Point LGBTQ graduates and cadets. After leaving the Army, Stewart became a member of Knights Out and joined the advisory board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and worked to overturn the odious don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) policy.
Stewart and I were early members of Knights Out when it was founded back in the 1990’s to oppose the DADT policy that existed for nearly two decades before it was overturned by Barack Obama in 2011. DADT, as the policy was called, forced LGBTQ service members to hide their sexuality, the “don’t tell” part, and in return, military commanders were not supposed to hunt them down and kick them out of the military, the “don’t ask” part.
It was a bullshit compromise created by a coalition of conservative members of Congress led by Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, who passed the policy to outflank President Bill Clinton, who had said he was going to overturn the military’s ban on gay servicemembers with an executive order similar to the one President Harry Truman issued that racially integrated the military in 1948.
DADT was a disaster for the military and for the LGBTQ people who sought to serve their country openly and without shame. More than 13,000 service members were discharged during the 18 years DADT was in effect, belying its stated purpose of allowing gay people to serve if only they remained quiet about their sexual orientation. It cost the nation hundreds of millions of dollars to train people and allow them to serve and then go through the expensive process of discharging them. The DADT policy not only didn’t work the way it was supposed to, it hurt the military by having severely negative effects on morale and readiness.
I received the Knights Out Legacy Award in 2016 for the work I did to oppose DADT by writing op ed articles, making speeches, and appearing on shows like CBS' 60 Minutes, the Today Show, and even on Fox News in its early days, before the network fell into its rabbit hole of right wing paranoia, conspiracy-mongering, and endless lies.
When Stewart receives his Legacy Award tomorrow at West Point, I will be there by his side, along with his husband, Stephen McNabb. Stewart and Stephen have been married for 14 years and together for 25. Stephen is a former Navy lieutenant who flew H60 Seahawk helicopters onboard the aircraft carriers Nimitz and Constellation. Stephen left the Navy because he no longer wanted to serve under the DADT policy.
After graduating from West Point in 1969, Stewart served in the Army Corps of Engineers for 26 years, including two tours in Vietnam and many assignments both stateside and overseas. During his career, Stewart was awarded the Legion of Merit (with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters), the Bronze Star (with OLC), the Meritorious Service Medal (with 2 OLCs), the Air Medal (with 3 awards), the Army Commendation Medal (with 2 OLCs), the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Parachutist Badge and the Ranger Tab.
All the above is necessary to tell you, at least in part, who Stewart Bornhoft is, and how he served his country. Think of Stewart serving in an Army that said he wasn’t wanted, solely because he is gay. I don’t know how he did it. Nor have I ever been able to understand how the other gay men I knew in the army were able to serve their country, knowing that their country had passed laws banning them from serving, making being gay essentially illegal.
I never understood while I was at West Point and in the army, and I still don’t understand today, why for so long the U.S. government and its military could not bring themselves to recognize that LGBTQ Americans have served in the military for the same reasons everyone did: they are patriots, they feel a sense of duty and honor, and they want to help protect their country and its freedoms. What’s so hard about that? Does who you get into bed with at night affect any of that? Of course not. Are LGBTQ people supposed to be somehow incapable of serving because they are gay? That fiction was tolerated for far too long. All you have to do is look at Stewart’s awards and decorations to know that he was very, very good at being a soldier. Graduating from Ranger School and earning the coveted Ranger Tab alone is evidence of that.
People with their senses turned on half way have known forever that there have been LGBTQ service members along side them in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Everyone has known forever, even if they haven’t admitted it, that there have been gay people and trans people serving in militaries since long before the time of Alexander the Great.
Now that DADT is gone and the Obergefell Supreme Court decision legalized same sex marriage, there is exactly zero evidence that either the military or the institution of marriage has collapsed. So, was prejudice the problem all along? Well, yes it was. But there was another problem as well: the unwillingness of people to stand up and say that the entire edifice of discrimination in the military was wrong and had to stop. Truman did that with a stroke of his pen in 1948 when he integrated the military from top to bottom. Prior to that, there was a large school of thought, primarily among Southerners in the military, that Black people can’t fight. Can you imagine? A version of the same prejudice was held against LGBTQ people, utterly without evidence.
Here is how absurd and wrong the military was: My father told me a story when I was still a cadet about an incident that happened in his Infantry battalion the week before they were shipping out to Vietnam in 1966. He got a call late at night from the Manhattan, Kansas, police department in the town next to the Fort Riley army post. They had arrested a second lieutenant in his battalion for cross-dressing at a bar downtown. If dad would come down to the station and collect him, they wouldn’t press charges.
My father got out of bed and drove downtown and picked up his second lieutenant, who was in full make-up, a wig, wearing a dress and high heels. He took him back to battalion headquarters, and as he told me later, asked him a simple question: given his current attire, could he lead soldiers in combat in Vietnam? The lieutenant answered that he could. My father drove him home. The next day, the lieutenant showed up in uniform, and they shipped out to Vietnam a few days later.
“Son,” my father told me, “he was the best platoon leader in the whole damn battalion. I didn’t want to lose him, and I’m glad I didn’t.”
In 1993, while the DADT policy was being debated in Congress, Dad and I and several other straight veterans went to Capitol Hill and spent several days lobbying against the bill and for the complete integration of gay people into the military. Dad was invited to testify at the Senate Armed Services Committee, and gave a moving opening statement about his cross-dressing lieutenant and a gay machine gunner in his company in Korea who had given his life in battle, holding off a Chinese human-wave attack with his machine gun, saving the entire company.
Dad, who was a 1945 graduate of West Point, died before DADT was overturned, but I’m telling you for a fact that he will be with me and Stewart Bornhoft tomorrow when he receives his Legacy Award, and I know Dad will be smiling and proud that we won.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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