For the first openly gay assistant secretary at the Pentagon, helping to advance “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal implementation has been a personally rewarding experience.
In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade, Douglas Wilson, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said Tuesday his role in bringing about the change has had particular significance for him because of his admiration for the nation’s armed forces.
“It’s meant a lot to me personally because it’s been an opportunity to help realize change in an institution that I respect tremendously,” Wilson said.
The process leading to gays serving openly in the U.S. military, Wilson said, has been important to him because he knows there are people in uniform who feel they “couldn’t be whole” as they served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not a whole person,” he said. “This is why as the process of repeal took place, and then the process of certification took place, that was something that personally I kept upper-most in my mind. An institution that has done so much for people, that has produced so many outstanding people, that has done so much for the country itself could understand and recognize how important it is to be a whole person.”
Wilson, whom the Senate confirmed in February 2010 to a senior position at the Pentagon, serves as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. His duties include being a principal adviser to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on public information and community relations.
It’s not the Tuczon, Ariz., native’s first job at the Defense Department. Under former defense chief William Cohen during the Clinton administration, Wilson, 60, was a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, and later principal deputy assistant under public affairs.
Wilson has had numerous other roles in government service and in work for non-profit organizations. Previously, he served as executive vice president of the Howard Gilman Foundation, where he oversaw the development and implementation of the organization’s domestic and international policy programs at its White Oak conservation center.
But in addition to his current duties at the Pentagon, Wilson had a direct role in bringing about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because he served on the executive committee for the Repeal Implementation Team.
“I’ve never seen myself as either a gay community leader or poster boy,” Wilson said. “I’ve always seen myself as a person with a whole lot of different components to me as an individual, and being gay is one of them.”
The culmination of that work took place when President Obama, Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified that the U.S. military is ready for open service. Under the repeal law signed in December, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books 60 days after certification — so the law will officially come to an end on Sept. 20.
In the Blade interview, Wilson discussed a variety of topics including what the lifting of the military’s gay ban means to him as well as implications for service members in the future. His partner of 16 years is an educator.
His piece of advice for gay service members after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the off the books? Feel confident and believe you can be whoever you want to be.
“The military cliche, slogan is ‘be all that you can be,’” Wilson said. “Never has this been so true as it’ll be on Sept. 20 for thousands of people.”
Wilson had few words about potential partner benefits that could be offered to gay service members upon repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because he’s “not a specialist on benefits.” Pentagon officials have said they intend to examine the possibility of extending certain benefits to gay service members — although the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits major benefits like housing and health insurance from going to service members.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate because I think all of these are on the table and I think there is a true determination here to do the right thing and to follow the law,” Wilson said.
Additionally, Wilson addressed the possibility of an executive order barring discrimination against troops based on sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT advocates have called for the order because no non-discrimination rule will be put in place for the military even after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is lifted, but the Pentagon officials have said they don’t believe such an order is necessary.
Wilson said channels are already in place for gay service members to make complaints about discrimination while enabling the Pentagon to keep its policies sexual orientation-neutral. Still, Wilson left the door open for further discussion on a non-discrimination order.
“People here are aware that there are different views on this issue,” Wilson said. “I expect that discussion on this issue is going to continue but that is the rationale.”
The transcript of the interview between the Washington Blade and Wilson follows:
Washington Blade: You were involved in the Repeal Implementation Team as the Pentagon made its way toward certification. As an openly gay man, what did that role mean for you personally?
Doug Wilson: I was a member of the executive committee of the RIT, and I’ve also have been here as the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs since February of 2010, and I think I’m the first openly gay assistant secretary in the Pentagon’s history. It’s meant a lot to me personally because it’s been an opportunity to help realize change in an institution that I respect tremendously.
I served here in the late ’90s under [former Defense Secretary] Bill Cohen, and I had never in a million years thought that I would be working at the Pentagon. It was a transformational experience for me. I met the most outstanding people in uniform, and civilians as well. But the people I met in uniform were absolutely remarkable people. The things they were required to do and did, the sacrifices that they made — it made a huge impression on me.
It also made an impression on me that there were men and women in uniform who couldn’t be whole. And I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not a whole person. This is why as the process of repeal took place, and then the process of certification took place, that was something that personally I kept upper-most in my mind. An institution that has done so much for people, that has produced so many outstanding people, that has done so much for the country itself — could understand and recognize how important it is to be a whole person.
It has demonstrated that when it came to the integration of the armed forces. It has demonstrated that when it came to the role of women in combat. And I knew that it could demonstrate that when it came to allowing gay and lesbian men and women to be whole and equal.
Blade: But have you ever found it challenging or felt out of place working for a department that — had you been working on the uniform side — until recently would have forced you out of your job because of your sexual orientation?
Wilson: Yes. I have been well aware that as a political appointee and as a civilian that I was able to do things that my counterparts in uniform were not able to do.
I’ve never seen myself as either a gay community leader or poster boy. I’ve always seen myself as a person with a whole lot of different components to me as an individual, and being gay is one of them. The thing that mattered the most to me was the folks in uniform would be able to be that. To be recognized as that — that being gay or lesbian is a component of who they are. It was always uncomfortable that there was that gap.
Blade: Do you feel like you’ve experienced any sort of anti-gay bias or discrimination while working at the Pentagon?
Wilson: No. Even when I was here in the late ’90s and I was quite close to secretary and Mrs. Cohen. They knew my sexual orientation, they extended their hands and welcomed me and at social events welcomed me and my partner. That meant a tremendous amount to me.
I felt the same way being here as an assistant secretary for public affairs, particularly within the office that I had, which consists of a large number of military as well as civilian, political appointees — all of whom know that I’m openly gay, all of whom have been nothing but supportive. It’s not been a factor … it’s a part of who I am, and that’s how I’ve been treated.
Blade: Are there any openly gay figures in government who’ve inspired you to be out?
Wilson: I don’t know that there’s been anybody who’s inspired me to be openly gay. I think that there are figures in government who are friends, who I’m proud to call colleagues — people like John Berry, people like Eric Fanning, who used to work for me at [Business Executives for National Security], is now here with the Navy. … I work with a large number of men and women in this government who are openly gay and lesbian. Certainly on the Hill, there’s an even larger number who are.
I think the thing that — we’re all extremely different people. But I think the approach is similar, that this is a component of who we are. I don’t think John Berry looks at himself as the gay director of [the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.] I think he looks at himself as the director of OPM, and he’s a gay man. That’s how I approach what I’m doing here.
As I say, everybody has their own path in life that they follow, and whether you’re gay or straight how you come to be who you are is your own path. For me, it’s wanting to be accepted for everything that I am in terms of the whole person that I am.
It took a long time to get here because I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when it was a very, very different time, and it’s been a long time coming, and I’m really proud of who I am. I’m proud of this institution. I’m proud of this administration, and mostly I’m proud of the literally thousands of people who are going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I’ve been able to advantage of earlier.
Blade: Did you know Pete Williams, the openly gay former Defense Department spokesperson?
Wilson: Yes I did. He was not openly gay. He was not open when he was here.
Blade: But he has since come out.
Wilson: I believe he has. You’ll have to ask him. I mean, I can’t speak for him. It’s very well known, but you’ll have to ask him how he wants to be characterized, but I feel very confident in saying I’m the first openly gay assistant secretary in any capacity here.
Blade: What was going through your head when certification was happening last week? Were you reflecting on anything personally?
Wilson: Yes. I was reflecting on the process that it took to get to this place in terms of repeal. In December of last year, it was kind of a crucible. And there were points during that month when people thought this ultimately was not going to happen, including very senior people here. And I never did believe that it wasn’t going to happen.
I thought that we really had reached a tipping point in December when [Sen.] Susan Collins stood on the floor after that vote on the [fiscal year 2011 defense] authorization [bill], and, within a couple of hours, she and [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman were back down there talking to [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid, and they were going to offer this bill.
At that point, I thought this is not dead. I didn’t see how it could die. I thought there were so many chances to kill it, and it wouldn’t die. And I really thought that this was going to happen in December because I thought too many people could not look themselves in the face, look themselves in the mirror and say — with a report that showed what it showed, that attitudes in the United States being what they were — that they were the ones to be the anachronism. I won some money as a result of that.
Blade: You won some money? How is that?
Wilson: I bet it would happen.
Blade: How much did you win?
Wilson: Let’s put it this way. I won enough for a round of drinks for a few people at JR.’s if I had gone.
Blade: Some conservatives have criticized the decision to certify repeal at this time. Chairman Buck McKeon of the House Armed Services Committee called certification the culmination a “flawed repeal assessment and adoption process” and said he’s disappointed Obama didn’t address “concerns expressed by military service chiefs.” What’s your response to that?
Wilson: Everybody has their own opinion with regards to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and it would inappropriate for me wearing the hat that I wear to make any particular comments on any particular person’s point of view.
I would just say that I thought that the Comprehensive Working Group Report truly reinforced the fact that in the military — as well as outside the military — views have changed considerably and that this is not something that is being forced, that this is something that is evolving.
I personally knew that we had reached this point when I saw some of the outreach sessions that were conducted during the report. I can tell you an anecdote. You’ll never be able to fit this into the story, but I will if you don’t mind.
Blade: Go ahead.
Wilson: When I was at Ft. Hood, and after the outreach sessions, we went to see a tank at a tank crew. The purpose of it was to show how close quarters were in a tank and how difficult it would be for gay and straight troops to serve together.
So, we saw the tank, and at the end, the tank crew lined up in front of the tank, and people said to us, “Do you have any questions?” And I said, “You all have served together several years.” And they said, “Yes, we’ve been together a long time.” I said, “What happens if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed and one of you told the other four that he was gay? What would you do?”
And person by person — the first person said, “Well, my brother’s gay, so it doesn’t matter.” The second person said, “Well, you know, I have so many friends who are gay from high school. It doesn’t matter.” To each person, it didn’t matter. And the final person said, “What matters to me is if this thing is burning, I want someone to be able to pull me out, and I don’t care what their [sexual] orientation is.”
That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. That’s my opinion.
Blade: Do you have any advice for gay service members in this period after certification but before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books?
Wilson: I would say this has been a lengthy process. The length of it has been frustrating for some people. I understand both the frustration and the need for the process because this a very large institution and cultural change does not turn on a dime, but the evolution of the cultural change that has brought us to this point means that we don’t need to spike the football, what we need to do is understand that a lot of people have spent a lot of effort who are not gay to help us to get to this point.
I would say there are 60 days left because that is part of the legislation and we’ve come this far. Let us reach the end.
Blade: What about after that time? When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books, what advice would you have for them?
Wilson: Feel confident in yourself, believe in yourself that you can be whoever you want to be. This is the statement that you are a whole person, that your sexual orientation is a part of who you are and it is not a limiting factor to who you can be. Take pride in that.
The military cliche, slogan is “be all that you can be.” Never has this been so true as it’ll be on Sept. 20 for thousands of people.
Blade: Now that recruiters are soon going to be able to take on openly gay people, do you foresee some kind of special outreach or advertising to the LGBT community to search for talent in the armed forces?
Wilson: Here’s what’s very interesting right now about the recruiting process, and that is, for a variety of reasons, all of the services are more than meeting their goals. It’s harder, rather than easier, to get into the services because of that. So, I guess I would say it’s important to make clear that everybody’s welcome, and it’s important to make clear to everybody that their talents are needed. It’s also important to understand that the openings are going to be limited, so you want the best, and the best include both gay and straight individuals.
Blade: But could you see, for example, an ad in the Washington Blade asking for people to enlist?
Wilson: Sure. Let’s put it this way. When the circumstances warrant that we need more people, then I can see an ad in the Washington Post, in the Washington Blade, in the Washington Times, and in the Washington Examiner.
Blade: Pentagon officials have said the issue of benefits for gay service members is going to be examined in the 60-day period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books. Which benefits do you think we’ll most likely see?
Wilson: I don’t know the answer to that. And I wouldn’t want to speculate because I think all of these are on the table and I think there is a true determination here to do the right thing and to follow the law.
The Pentagon has been put in a very interesting position by the courts over the past six months, and each step along the way, they have followed the law whatever the law is at that time. With regard to benefits, I think they want to look at each and every issue, they want to be able to determine it based on the law, whatever the law is now, whatever the law will be in 2012 or 2013 or 2014 — that will apply as well. So, I guess I would just say that nothing is off the table, but I wouldn’t want to advance guess the process.
Blade: Just to clarify … some of the major spousal benefits — housing and health insurance — those are prohibited from going to gay service members because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Do you see any possible workaround to offering those benefits to gay service members even with DOMA in place?
Wilson: I have to be honest with you, Chris. This is an area where I couldn’t give you the best answer because I’m not the specialist on benefits; I’m just not. All I would say is there is certainly a recognition here by the Repeal Implementation Team — both military and civilian — of the benefits that are extended to those in uniform, of the ones that for the moment, are not or cannot be because of the law, and people are looking at all of those.
Blade: One issue affecting gay service members has led to an ACLU lawsuit — the half separation pay that many service members face if they’ve been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It’s my understanding this could be changed administratively. Will the Pentagon make this change after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books?
Wilson: Again, I don’t know the answer. I’m being very honest with you. I don’t know the answer to the question; I wouldn’t speculate about the answer to the question. The only thing I would say is I’m well aware that that is an issue that is going to be raised.
Blade: I think I’m going to get the same answer here, but I’ll ask anyway. Another issue that is facing discharged service members is recoupment costs. Some who have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are required to pay back bonuses they’ve received or grants they received for ROTC tuition —
Wilson: You would get the same answer. … None of these issues or concerns are secrets or surprises to people. The people here are aware of all of them. The one thing — you asked me about my impressions of this team — one of the things that has most impressed me about this repeal implementation team is the degree to which the people who are leading it, particularly the people like [Marine Corps Maj.] Gen. Steve Hummer and [Virginia] “Vee” Penrod. … These are truly outstanding humans. These are people who want to do the right thing. I do not sense a prejudiced bone in their body.
Blade: The issue of non-discrimination is still a concern. There have been some calls for the president to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s been some talk in the briefings that we don’t need to have this executive order. Why is that?
Wilson: The position that has been articulated is because there are channels. There are channels for raising these complaints, and the approach has been — on as any many issues as you possibly can do — to not have to change the policy if the policy already is sexual orientation neutral. And that’s the view here that this policy is sexual orientation neutral. People here are aware that are different views on this issue. I expect that discussion on this issue on this issue is going to continue but that is the rationale.
Blade: There’s also been concern that openly transgender people are still unable to serve in the U.S. military. Do you think that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal will open the door to open trans service?
Wilson: I don’t know the answer to that. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I guess my own personal opinion is I think the issue of benefits is going to be the first issue after the 60 days, the most immediate issue of the set of the issues that are going to be addressed. The continuing issue of benefits, I think those are going to be addressed in the 60-day period and beyond. So, I think if I had to guess what are going to be the most near-term topics of discussion, it’ll be some of the benefits issues that you raised.