Reichen Lehmkuhl Interview

By Jeff Walsh

In his book "Here's What We'll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force Academy," Reichen Lehmkuhl provides an eyewitness account of the Air Force Academy under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The book chronicles his growing acceptance of his sexuality and the eventual formation of an underground group at the Academy, started by Reichen, which enabled gay cadets to provide alibis for one another to protect their sexuality from being known. The book's title is taken from the phrase the group used to preface their alibis. Reichen recently spoke with Jeff prior to his book tour appearance in San Francisco. Here's What We Said...

So, what prompted you to write the book?

I wanted to write the book since I was a cadet at the Academy. I always tell people 'Someone should write a book about this place,' or 'Someone should make a movie about this place.' So, I wrote the book. About two years ago, I started, and it was right around the time that I was separating completely from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves.

The book paints a pretty bleak picture of the after effects of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. How do you think that will eventually resolve? Are we ever going to change hearts and minds or will it be a legal thing?

If people pay attention, the book will change hearts and minds. This book explains what's happening behind closed gates for people who don't have access to where I was and where I've been, so I'm just here explaining to people what's going on and they can make their own opinion and decide how active they want to be in getting rid of it.

So, you think the way this will eventually resolve is by changing hearts and minds?

Yeah, I mean... I want to, of course, rid this country of prejudice against gay people, and keep integrating straight people and gay people. Ultimately, I've asked for the next presidential candidate to answer to the atrocities I wrote about in my book.

It was interesting in the book because it seemed that you used everything the military taught you to build this underground society. It had very strict rules. It was disciplined and ordered. They taught you well enough to run a covert ops program underneath their own infrastructure.

People ask 'Where did you get your strength to deal with all of this adversity in the military?' and I say I got it from the military. And I also got it from inside, because my military academy slot that I earned was such a huge part of me and I wasn't going to let anyone take that away, so it was also for selfish reasons that I would preserve myself and my friends. I didn't want to lose that academy slot.

What about, in the gay community... (and I did this myself, when I came out at 22 or so. I said, 'Well at least I know I won't ever have to serve in the military.' I mean, I wasn't going anyway, but now I had this extra 'Get Out Of The Army Free' pass.) Is there any issue with people within the gay community thinking this isn't our most important issue?

It doesn't have to be our most important issue. It just has to be a very important issue. If there are people out there who believe this is not an important issue, they are just simply not well informed and it hasn't been explained to them. And that's OK. That's what I'm going to do: explain this to everyone, how serious it is, and what it means to them as an American and a taxpayer.

When you referred to meeting Barney Frank, asking him to sign on to sponsor you going to the academy, you wrote in the book, "I truly believe that one's personal intentions can actually produce a positive energy field and influence the opinion of others toward oneself. I believe that my positive thinking... had something to do with my getting a congressional nomination to the academy." Has that been a guiding principle that you've used throughout your life?

Yeah. Actually, when I was an active duty officer after the academy is when I started developing my spiritual beliefs, and I do believe that your intentions really can turn into reality. What you really ant and what you focus on mentally, if you think about it enough, it will happen to you. I think it's the power of positive thinking that made that happen, and I believe that today.

Have you ever talked to Barney Frank since then?

Yeah, actually, I was able to honor Barney Frank at an awards ceremony two years ago.

So it came full circle. Just like Oprah always says...

It really does.

Those are the sorts of things I really picked up on in the book. Not that the book is about that, but there were always references to positive thinking and at one point you talked about... now, a lot of people on the site are always 'I need a relationship, and I need whatever,' but you said what you really wanted was "a spiritual connection that two people in love share." And it just seemed, for someone who hadn't come out yet... I guess the question is: Is that who you really were then, or is that looking back from your perspective now?

I think back then I even felt that, that I really wanted love. But I didn't think of it in those terms. Today, I look back and I say, "Yeah, I wanted someone where I would have that spiritual connection, where not only would I like them as much as they liked me, but also that there was some feeling that we were meant to be together." That's where the spiritual connection comes in. Obviously, I didn't find that when I was a cadet.