An investigation into the history of the Pentagon’s anti-LGBT “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy reveals that long before his recent foray into the public debate, former Vice President Dick Cheney was instrumental in crippling the rule which today prevents gay and lesbian personnel from serving openly in their country’s armed forces.
Cheney—who was admitted to George Washington University Hospital on February 22 after suffering a mild heart attack, his fifth—has made no secret that he is the father of a lesbian daughter, Mary, born in 1969.
But it is an almost-forgotten footnote to the DADT debate that while he was Secretary of Defense to President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, Cheney virtually abolished the policy before it even officially existed.
And it appears that time and again, it was his relationship with his gay daughter that marked this departure from his otherwise hard-line conservative stands.
In its September 12, 2000 cover story, Sarah Wildman reports in The Advocate that “by the time [Cheney] was leaving Bush’s cabinet [in 1993], Mary was just coming out of the closet to her family.”
The same article quotes LGBT media expert Bob Witeck referring to Cheney’s relationship with Mary.
“It’s rare for any adult, let alone an openly lesbian daughter, and her father [to be so close],” Witeck said.
How did that closeness manifest itself in terms of public policy decisions on the part of the former White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford?
The late Randy Shilts points out in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military: “Cheney delivered [an] order to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: He did not want the services to pursue massive purges of gay personnel. Word of witch-hunting tactics had reached him… and he would have no such goings-on on his watch at the Defense Department.”
Shilts—who had previously penned the seminal bestseller And the Band Played On—also wrote about Cheney’s personal intervention in 1990 that forced the Department of the Navy to drop demands it had made for “recoupment” of tuition after three gay Midshipmen were expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy.
After resistant Navy officers tried to force another expelled gay Midshipman to repay his tuition, Shilts reports that Cheney exploded: “Goddamn it, I’ve told the military departments not to hit people up for back tuition!”
According to Shilts, Cheney sent an Assistant Defense Secretary “to repeat his orders to both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Naval Personnel that purges and recoupment proceedings cease against gay military personnel.”
Perhaps most revealing was Cheney’s reaction to the outing of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams by The Advocate in 1991.
The result was an unheard of acknowledgement by a sitting Defense Secretary that gays were currently serving their country in uniform.
In several interviews, Cheney said that gays had always served, often with honor. He called the argument that gay and lesbian service members were security risks “sort of an old chestnut.” (In response, an amused Congressman Barney Frank told an interviewer that “if Cheney defended the United States the way he defended this policy, we would have been captured by now—by Cuba.”)
Williams not only kept his job, but a senior Pentagon official reported that Cheney had brought the matter to the attention of President George H. W. Bush, who approved keeping Williams on.
Todd Krough, a former Fort Lauderdale resident and Air Force reservist, says that Cheney’s actions as Defense Secretary had far-reaching consequences.
“This is a lot like the ‘butterfly effect,’” said Krough. “As a civilian policymaker standing up to members of the top uniformed brass, Cheney set into motion the mere idea that this is the reality of the situation, whether you like it or not.”
“That was Darth Cheney’s one moment where he actually got to resist the Dark Side of the Force,” Krough laughed, invoking the former V.P.’s nickname when he served in the Bush-43 administration.
Bruce Shevlin, a Vietnam War era veteran, agrees there was probably an element of practicality to Cheney’s position.
“You have to believe his daughter’s sexuality played a part in his own attitudes towards gay and lesbians,” he says.
“And then again,” Shevlin adds, “whenever you have boots on the ground, some of them will be wearing white socks, some of them pink.”