I finished reading Reichen Lehmkuhl's new book today about his experience coming out while attending the US Air Force Academy. "Here's What We'll Say" is a surprisingly interesting read that was unexpectedly easy to relate to.
Lehmkuhl is certainly not an experienced writer, which is evident throughout his memoirs. He might have been well-served to have hired a ghost writer to better articulate the thoughts conveyed his his memoirs. However, I recommend not allowing the mediocre writing dissuade you from picking up a copy of this important book.
As we all know, Reichen Lehmkuhl is an Air Force Officer turned Reality TV Star turned Model. After winning the Amazing Race with his then-partner, he went on to be pushed down the throats of many in the Gay community as the new posterboy for GLBT rights. Unfortunately, at first glance it is difficult to relate to a pretty-boy model trained by the US Military to be a rugged machine and made famous on national television. This book, however, helps to show a vision of Reichen Lehmkuhl that is more realistic.
His memoirs provide a sometimes entertaining glance at his humble beginnings as a skinny, awkward kid living in a trailer park near a polluted "lake." Just like the rest of us, he was teased by bullies during his middle school years. Like some of us, he had an unusually difficult time making friends during those years, as well, because of his differences with the other children.
Through his account of his teen years, we witness Reichen first starting to recognize his own sexual identity. He hides from himself behind a long-distance girlfriend who gives him the idea to apply to the Air Force Academy and gives him the moral support to do so. We also watch as he develops an unusually close friendship with "Ben Silverman" that evolves into Reichen's first love. However, when he realized that he had fallen in love with another man, it was too late to act upon it, nor was he ready to recognize or accept his own homosexuality.
His account of the US Air Force Academy is astounding. The challenges that cadets must face in order to succeed at the academy are remarkable. Beyond the rules, strict living environment, rigorous coursework, and general hazing of underclassmen, the training that cadets must endure is simply unbelieveable. Most Americans know that military men and women must complete a difficult basic training filled with hazing from superiors, hard tasks, filthy conditions, and other varied forms of strife. However, most are unaware of the continued training that cadets must face including how to survive as a Prisoner of War in an unfriendly territory.
As a Gay man, Lehmkuhl had to face much more than the ordinary cadet. He had to discover his own identity with little help from others and then learn to cope in an environment where homosexual activity is treated as a crime.
In the midst of his own personal struggles, Lehmkuhl was raped by two unknown men. He explains that it was the policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that caused his rapists to victimize him and it was the same policy that made it impossible for him to report the incident. Had he reported the crime, he would have likely been investigated for homosexuality as a part of the DADT witchhunt.
As the book goes on, Reichen finally acknowledges his sexuality, has relationships with other men both military and civilian, learns to live a double life without losing his own identity, and meets other gay and lesbians in the Academy. Eventually, he and a few friends (out of necessity) develop a tightknit underground network of Gays to provide themselves with alibies and protect themselves from DADT policies.
Though Lehmkuhl admits that some of the accounts in the final chapters of his book did not actually occur to him but were stories that happened to people close to him, this book gives a strong portrayal of what it must be like to be a gay man in a military academy. In general, however, the read is believeable, if sometimes a little fantastic.
The reality is that many people I know, including myself, some of whom are gay, considered seeking an appointment to a military academy. When I was 18 I was not prepared to declare whether I was Gay, Straight, or otherwise and neither are most high school seniors, including those entering the military. Those young people should not be forced into a position where they may serve with honor only if they deny their own identity while their heterosexual peers have no similar requirement. Meanwhile, a misguided policy initially aimed at protecting Gays serving in the armed forces not only causes gay people to live in fear but actually allows harm to come to them both physically and emotionally.
Here's What We'll Say gives a strong account of the inequities in US military academies. All Gays should be free to come out of the closet to live openly without fear. This book goes a long way to expose the problems caused by DADT and to draw public attention to them.