home about media center archive history links subscribe

In Memoriam: General John Shalikashvili, USA (1936-2011)
A True Hero to Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Service Members

By

RADM Alan M. Steinman USPHS/USCG

General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993-1997, died on July 23, 2011. In his 39 years of service to our country, starting as a draftee and ending as the highest-ranking officer in the military, General Shalikashvili had a remarkable career, earning the respect and admiration of his peers, the military’s top leaders, and of the Presidents he served.

He will be remembered for many accomplishments during his military career, but he will be most honored by the military GLB community for his public support of repeal of the discriminatory DADT law. Although Gen. Shalikashvili fully supported the initial rationale for DADT in 1993, in the years after his retirement he came to understand that America had changed; he observed that young troops were far more comfortable working with gays and lesbians than he had previously thought, and that there were many openly gay and lesbian troops serving with the knowledge of their peers and even sometimes with the knowledge of their commands. His public advocacy for repealing DADT was a major, historic milestone in the fight for equality of service of GLB service members.

Starting in 2005, I had the honor and privilege of meeting many times with General Shalikashvili. He invited me to join him at his home in Steilacoom, WA to discuss the DADT law. General Shalikashvili was genuinely interested in the issue, especially as he recognized the changing nature of American society in regards to its acceptance of GLB citizens in all walks of life. Slowly, over the months, I recognized in General Shalikashvili a change in his attitude towards gays and lesbians serving in the military. Starting from his statement, “I know repealing DADT will be good for the gay community, but when I wear my Chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ hat, I’m not yet convinced it will be good for the military,” General Shalikashvili eventually agreed to meet with members of the gay community who were leaders in the effort to repeal DADT. He met with Dixon Osborne (head of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network), and he met with Professor Aaron Belkin (head of the Palm Center at University of California, Santa Barbara). These discussions brought to light for the general many legal, historical and societal issues touching on the repeal of DADT. They were persuasive and began to demonstrate for General Shalikashvili a framework in which unrestricted service of gay, lesbian and bisexual troops would be acceptable to the military.

In 2006 General Shalikashvili agreed to meet with several gay service members (Alex Nicholson*, Jarrod Chlapowski*, Steve Lorandos, Timothy Smith, Patrick English and myself), some of them still on active duty. These gay troops and veterans, most of whom were known to be gay by their peers, brought a reality to the general that there was a very large cultural disconnect between the experiences of the young troops making up 70% of the military and the assumptions held by their much older military leadership, assumptions that formed the foundations of the DADT law. The assumed negative consequences to unit morale, unit cohesion or operational readiness were nowhere apparent in the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coasties.

But it was the experience of the active duty gay submariner, Steve Lorandos, who proved to be the most persuasive advocate for repeal during the meeting with the general. General Shalikashvili had previously stated that the submarine environment, with its forced lack of privacy and all male crew confined together underwater for three months at a time, was the ultimate reason that gays could never openly serve in the military. The fact that this submariner was known to be gay by the entire crew of the vessel (which presumably meant the command knew as well, since there are no secrets on a sub) and yet he was a respected and valued member of the crew, demonstrated that even in this extreme military environment, gays could serve openly without negative consequences.

One year later General Shalikashvili wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Second Thoughts on Gays in the Military.”

[http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/02/opinion/02shalikashvili.html?_r=1&oref=slogin].
In this op-ed he made the following statements:

“When I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I supported the current policy because I believed that implementing a change in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders. … The question before us now is whether enough time has gone by to give this policy serious reconsideration. Much evidence suggests that it has. … “Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers. … I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.”

The importance of this op-ed for the repeal of DADT cannot be overstated. It was like a nuclear bomb going off on the issue. For here was the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sworn to uphold the law and staunchly supporting its foundation at the time it was passed in 1993, now changing his mind and stating that gays could serve openly without diminishing military effectiveness. In so doing he broke the previous firewall of flag officer opinion opposing gay military service, and he made it acceptable for other high-ranking military officers, including many other flag officers, to support repeal of the DADT law. General Shalikashvili’s strong advocacy for gays and lesbians in the military will forever remain an historic marker in the efforts to repeal DADT.

But General Shalikashvili wasn’t finished fighting for unrestricted military service for gay and lesbian citizens. In 2010, in the middle of the intense political push to repeal DADT, General Shalikashvili made an even stronger statement in a publicly released message to the Pentagon leadership.

[http://gillibrand.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=60c1b742-f0ff-4397-83a8-49adf322e77b]:

“Studies have shown that three-quarters of service members say they are personally comfortable around gays and lesbians. Two-thirds say they already know or suspect gay people in their units. This raises important questions about the assertion that openly gay service would impair the military. In fact, it shows that gays and lesbians in the military have already been accepted by the average soldier.

“As a nation built on the principal of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger more cohesive military. It is time to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow our military leaders to create policy that holds our service members to a single standard of conduct and discipline."

General Shalikashvili lived to see his recommendations and his advocacy on behalf of GLB troops come to fruition. His son, Brant, attended on his behalf the Presidential Signing Ceremony for the DADT repeal bill on December 22, 2010, and he lived long enough to see the certification by the Secretary of Defense, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Commander-in-Chief that the military is ready for openly gay troops to serve their country with the same dignity and honor as their straight peers.

Bravo Zulu to you General Shaliskashvili! Thank you for all you did for the military and for standing for equality for all men and women who don the uniform of the United States Armed Forces. You are a true hero to us.

Rest in peace, General. You will never be forgotten.

*Co-founders of Call to Duty Tour and Servicemembers United

 2011 Gay Military Signal