Colin Powell Changes His Tune

As a member of the Harvard Class of 1968, I approached my 25th Reunion in 1993 with some misgivings over the honoring of Colin Powell. Echoes of distaste for the Shah of Iran's presence at my own Commencement reinforced my current views on militarism in general, and Pentagon homophobia in particular. Little did I anticipate the twin opportunities of speaking personally with the General at the Class Marshal's Luncheon and taking a literally central position in demonstrating an aspect of what Erik Erikson dubbed Gandhi's Truth.

Though fully aware since puberty of my orientation, I kept it hidden throughout my undergraduate career with a zeal not even Sam Nunn could have faulted. Fear of rejection by my friends should they learn the truth was the mechanism that held my self-oppression in place; it took the advent of gay liberation some years later to show me that friendship based on the pretense of a false self was a contradiction in terms. Whether the courage needed to confront disapproval and even violence for the sake of telling the truth and removing an unjust stigma is as "incompatible with military service" as the Joint Chiefs wished to assert was a question my own experience made me address with urgent passion.

Consequently I rejoiced in the presence of several firebrand classmates, of various persuasions, determined to stand publicly not against Colin Powell but against the policy he had endorsed. A manifesto, circulated throughout Reunion week and signed by many, affirmed not only opposition to the gay ban but "support, respect and love" for lesbians and gays in the Class, at Harvard, and throughout the world. Clearly, some of those whose intolerance I feared a quarter century earlier had grown less worthy of my dark projections, and evolved into true allies, even though unknown.

Thus I found myself on Commencement morning sporting not only the top hat, striped pants and cutaway coat of a Marshal's Aid, but the pink triangle buttons of a politically committed one. The Lift the Ban sticker in the middle of my white tie didn't escape General Powell's notice when I approached him over pre-Luncheon cocktails, congratulated him, and said, "I hope we both live to see the day when this issue no longer divides us." "So do I," he replied, "and I hope it's soon." He went on to say, "I have no brief against any group of Americans, but I represent an institution that changes very slowly and with great reluctance. I'm doing my best to make it change as fast as I think it effectively can." Speaking briefly at the end of lunch, he was even more conciliatory, assuring the audience that the claims of gays and lesbians to serve would be honored as fully as those of blacks and women had been. It was an olive branch that became him more than his rows of medals; Seventeen years later, it has finally bloomed.

At the Afternoon Exercises I was seated a few rows behind and just slightly to the left of the podium, and as the moment of Powell's address approached, I realized how exposed I would be as the sole top-hatted male standing in protest. Rendering me even more conspicuous was the large pink triangle blooming on the front of my top hat, lending me the air of a gay Jerry Garcia. Noting the four Secret Service guns at the edge of the stage, I took one fearful precaution: having been sucking on lozenges all day (my throat was dry and I was scheduled to sing that night at the Class Cabaret), I gathered a few into my left hand rather than risk the ignominy of being shot down as I reached into my cutaway for a pastille. Superior weaponry can induce caution even in the bold.

My earlier encounter with the General enabled me to stand throughout his speech with a calmness verging on Quakerism. I realized I had no animosity towards him whatsoever, but rather was moved to applaud more than a few times, for instance at his prediction that nuclear stockpiles would before long be reduced to zero (a prediction calculated more to please his audience than to come true). Two women stood near me among the Aids, and many more classmates standing in mufti at the far sides of the stage bolstered our resolve. The angry cries of "Sit down" that greeted us at first were obviously more disruptive than our silence and soon subsided.

As Powell continued, I began to experience a state of blissful surrender: my decision had already been made, and I would remain standing as long as he spoke; the duration of my protest thus depended on him. I wondered what Martin Luther King, slated to have been the 1968 Class Day speaker, would have said to this black warrior had he survived into the era of the gay rights struggle. Finally I contacted the inherent power of non-violence to dissolve Otherness, and thus overcome the demonizing of the adversary on which militarism depends (an unlikely response to the remarks of a four-star general, but so be it). And then I marveled that simply by affirming with pride an aspect of my nature that formerly, in sight of these very elms, had seemed a burden of shame, I had once more opened myself to the healing power of Veritas. Coming out is coming home.