Gay couple du jour Reichen Lehmkuhl and Lance Bass are getting the full media Monty, including celebrity magazine covers, entertainment TV segments—and, last week, death threats from America's homophobic masses. "There are threats that come in from people who do not want me to be so public and expose what is going on in the military," Lehmkuhl, the $1 million winner of the reality show "The Amazing Race," told TV's "Inside Edition."
The threats arrived in response to Lehmkuhl's dramatic appearance last Monday on "Good Morning America," the first stop on a book tour for his new memoir, "Here's What We'll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force Academy". The former Air Force captain revealed for the first time that he was raped as an Air Force cadet by fellow cadets after a friend outed him. "A bag was put over my head," he recalled. "I was stripped of my clothes. I was forced to do things sexually with two other male cadets."
That was when he experienced, as he records in "Here's What We'll Say," every gay military member's worst nightmare under the then-new policy of "don't ask, don't tell." "You start having suicidal thoughts, and that's when you start saying, "Oh, my God. I am so stuck in this situation. I can't go to anyone."
Officially "don't ask, don't tell" covers all homosexual matters in silence. Military personnel are prohibited from questioning fellow soldiers about their sexual orientation, offering gay men and lesbians the appearance of protection from a long tradition of harassment and abuse. But in practice, the policy has triggered the very witch hunts Congress mandated to end in 1993, resulting in the expulsion (so far) of 11,000 soldiers simply for being, or suspected of being, gay.
The policy also prohibits any soldier from coming out, having gay sex, or even talking about homosexuality in a personal way. This regime of silence has bred the purest strain of homophobia anywhere in America: It heightens the fear of being perceived as homosexual, releases perpetrators from any accountability for anti-gay physical or sexual assaults, and prevents soldiers like Lehmkuhl who are victims of those crimes from seeking medical help.
In Lehmkuhl's book, what Lehmkuhl says about his own rape, his best gay friend's suicide and the many other personal costs of "don't ask, don't tell" constitutes a searing indictment not only of the policy but also of the military itself. "There was definitely an institutionalized acceptance of people being homophobic and telling gay jokes and making homophobic remarks—really, really mean homophobic remarks to the point of, 'Kill gay people,'" Lehmkuhl told "People" magazine.
So death threats are nothing new to the 32-year-old actor-model, who received an honorable Air Force discharge five years ago. "We have to be very protective," he said, adding that he and his lover, Bass, the former 'N Sync star who came out on the cover of "People" last July, report the threats to their private security and the FBI. "I am not going to hide."
A bipartisan attempt to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" fizzled last month when the Republican leadership refused to schedule the bill. Meantime, Lehmkuhl is poised to be the new poster boy for repeal of the homophobic law. And he could be a face that a new Congress, controlled by Democrats at a time when the U.S. military is stretched beyond capacity, could find the guts to follow.