There has been considerable controversy over the qualifications of Richard Grenell in assuming his post as acting Director of National Intelligence. There are legitimate concerns that his background, which includes being ambassador to Germany, is light on intelligence experience. However, there is one aspect of the nomination that has received little attention. Grenell is now the highest appointment of an openly gay official. I am not usually inclined to emphasize such identity issues in appointments, which should be based on the merits of the background and talents of an individual. However, it is remarkable for someone who have been working in and around the intelligence system for decades. When I first joined the National Security Agency (NSA) as a lowly intern during the Reagan Administration, many of the questions and much of the investigation concerned possible homosexuality. The testing also seemed to be directed at whether there were any homosexuality tendencies. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous and discriminatory, but the NSA and other intelligence operations justified the exclusion on the basis that it could be used as blackmail. However, it was also clear that an openly gay individual would not be given a position. Now, the Director of National Intelligence (who is a member of the Cabinet) Grenell, 53 will be an openly gay man. That is something that we can all celebrate as a great moment for the country.
The prejudice against gay and lesbian Americans cost this country dearly in its betrayal of our constitutional principles as well as the loss of talented and patriotic public servants. Those who did serve in the military and intelligence fields were subjected to continual threat of removal and even prosecution.
As a liberal kid from Chicago, I remember being shocked by how many questions were directed at homosexuality tendencies, including the standard polygraph and psychological testing questions. The entire logic of the effort seemed based on circular logic. The intelligence services insisted that they could not allow gays and lesbians to serve because they could be blackmailed. However, they could be blackmailed because we had made their status unlawful. Back then, many states still made homosexual relations as a crime. In 1986, the Supreme Court reaffirmed these laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, in a 5–4 ruling. It found that Georgia’s anti-sodomy law was constitutional. At the time I was applying to the United States Supreme Court for a clerkship to follow my planned clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. I was very upset by the ruling and got into hot water with some at my law school by withdrawing my applications form the five justices who voted to affirm. I think it was Justice Stevens’ chamber that flagged the issue with the faculty. I was told that the expectation was that law students would apply to all chambers. I refused.
Of course, in 1998, the Supreme Court finally overturned the Bowers decision and has now embraced same-sex marriage as constitutionally protected, though the grounds for that decision remains controversial.
Ironically, even the fierce debate of Grenell’s qualification is a welcomed moment for those of us who long opposed the discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals in government. The fact that his openly gay relationship barely warrants mention is itself a great advance. The debate legitimately is focused on his qualifications not his orientation.
The Senate is likely to confirm Grenell but he will have to make his own case that he is not just someone selected for his staunch support for Trump (who was reportedly enraged by the sharing of intelligence suggesting that Russia was intervening in the 2020 election to help reelect him). In addition to his position as our envoy to Germany, Grenell served as spokesman to our United Nations mission. He received his B.A. in Government and Public Administration from Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri and his master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Harvey Milk was declared “Hope will never be silent.” It was a call for all to be open about their sexuality and to demand equality as their right as American citizens. In another historic moment (given the same long discrimination in the military against gay and lesbian service members), the Navy recently announced the building of the USNS Harvey Milk. Milk served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War on the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13). He was given an honorable discharge, but he would have been tossed out the service if he was openly gay at the time.
As this confirmation fight plays out, some of us can take great satisfaction (and Grenell can take great pride) in the fact that the head of the national intelligence is now an openly gay man . . . and few people really seem to care.