The First Openly Gay U.S. Air Force Academy Commandant
Col. Kristin Goodwin will serve an institution once swayed by the anti-gay religious right
by KEVIN KNODELL
U.S. Air Force colonel Kristin Goodwin will be moving to Colorado Springs to take over the role of commandant of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Goodwin is currently the senior military adviser to the secretary of the Air Force and on March 14, 2016 received the nomination for promotion to brigadier general.
Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson’s e-mail to staff, obtained by the Colorado Springs Independent, paints a picture of an accomplished officer — the former vice commander of the 59th Bomb Wing and wing commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing, with experience flying at least a half-dozen different types of military aircraft including the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
As is standard, Johnson left Goodwin’s personal life out of the biography, although it is significant, as Goodwin will be the first openly gay commandant at the academy. When she arrives in Colorado Springs, she’ll bring her wife and two children with her.
“Why are they not publicly acknowledging this groundbreaking selection of a gay, female new commandant?” Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mikey Weinstein wrote in an e-mail to the Independent. “This question HAS to be asked. There’s just total silence out thereabout this? Why?”
It’s been less than a decade that gay and lesbian service members have been able to serve openly within the U.S. military. The 2010 repeal the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” paved the way to allowing gay members of all branches to marry their partners and extend military benefits to their families and allow them to live on base.
It’s likely that Goodwin would rather be known for her accomplishments as an officer, and for her upcoming tenure as commandant to be defined by the leadership she provides cadets, than her personal life. Nevertheless, it’s not insignificant that Goodwin landed this specific gig.
The Air Force Academy has frequently been embroiled in controversies over accusations that senior leaders there have built a cozy relationship with fundamentalist Christian groups which have tried to disseminate anti-gay doctrines at the institution.
It’s also relevant that the Air Force Academy is situated just outside Colorado Springs, which is home to more than 100 evangelical groups including Focus on the Family, a prominent anti-LGBT political lobby organization. Several Colorado Springs-area evangelical organizations have made military-focused ministry a priority, reaching out to academy staff, faculty and students — and soldiers at nearby Fort Carson.
“How do you go up the chain of command when the further you go up the chain of command, you have people who want to promote religion?” Air Force Academy instructor Donald Anderson told an NPR reporter during a 2005 interview. “Our acting commander was talking to us in public about his personal relationship, sending out e-mails with religious quotes on it and telling us that the Lord had a plan for us.”
In response to concerns, the academy crafted Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People, or RSVP, a mandatory briefing for all staff and cadets. But it too became a subject of controversy.
Melinda Morton, a Lutheran Air Force chaplain, helped create the RSVP program, which she said was originally longer and included more details on other religions of the world, but was changed because one of her superiors, a Baptist chaplain, allegedly didn’t like it on the basis that Christians didn’t get to “win.”
Morton was reassigned to Okinawa and claimed it was punishment for speaking out, which Air Force officials denied.
Nevertheless, the controversy led to policy changes. The Air Force rolled out guidance stating that while the practice of free religion is good for morale, superiors who specifically proselytized “may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity.”
“The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order and discipline,” the regulation added. “Airmen, especially commanders and supervisors, must ensure that in exercising their right of religious freedom, they do not degrade morale, good order and discipline in the Air Force or degrade the trust and confidence that the public has in the Air Force.”
Years later, as the Obama administration moved to nix DADT, some evangelical groups protested the repeal as an affront to Christian morals. Top military brass were apprehensive. Some cited concerns about unit cohesion, and others outright stated they believed to gay people to be immoral.
However, when the repeal finally came into effect, rank and file U.S. service members were largely unfazed. Little seemed to change and some senior officers later admitted they had overestimated the potential effect and that it had almost no effect on morale or readiness.
Just as faith is a personal matter, so is sexuality. And for most service members today, their comrades’ faith and sexual orientation matter considerably less than their professional competence and dedication to the team.
Case in point, when the Army Times published the headline that Eric Fanning was the first openly gay person to serve as acting secretary of the U.S. Army, and then subsequently made it the lede of the story again when he was confirmed as the official Army secretary, some commenters were baffled as to why the newspaper was making it such a big deal.
Fanning had been working in the Pentagon for years — including a stint as acting Air Force secretary — and knew the system well. He was widely regarded as a competent bureaucrat and was generally well liked by uniformed and civilian personnel alike. Despite the headline, most soldiers greeted it as merely the appointment of another Pentagon insider to an administrative role.
Besides, DADT had never applied to civilian Department of Defense employees and hadn’t seriously impeded Fanning’s career. For many service members, the repeal of DADT already feels distant — it’s old news. However, for many of those service members the policy directly affected, it’s hard to forget.
In 2013, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state touted its first official first annual LGBT pride celebration. “This is significant for those of us who had to live under the shadow of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Maj. Gen. Patricia Rose, the U.S. military’s most senior openly gay officer.
However, while attendees were generally upbeat and optimistic about the future, they weren’t shy about discussing what they saw as residual homophobia that hadn’t caught up with the change in policy.
Staff Sgt. Joe Carrillo, an infantry combat veteran and openly gay soldier, told War Is Boring that a “generational gap” led some senior officers to see the presence of gay troops as a disruptive new cultural fad. “We’re not new, we’ve always been here,” Carrillo said. “We’re the same professionals we’ve always been.”
Some soldiers said that while they didn’t personally encounter bigotry, their spouses and children were at time shunned at social events on bases — a more subtle form of discrimination that is basically unenforceable.
In 2013, it emerged that U.S. Air Force Academy research analyst Mike Rosebush had been self-publishing books on gay conversion therapy and once worked for Focus on the Family. As a psychology professor in the 1980s, Rosebush had promoted Dobson’s writings in an official military training manual on leadership. Rosebush specifically cited Dobson’s parenting book Dare to Discipline, but didn’t mention it was about children.
“Dr. Dobson’s international best-seller was not written only for cadets. His message is clear. All Supervisors must establish the correct atmosphere … with the subordinate,” he wrote in the manual Applying the Academy Training Philosophy.
In 2014, the Air Force conducted a review of its ban on leaders proselytizing to subordinates after several Republican members of Congress wrote to the flying branch, alleging that the rule was poorly thought out and violated airmen’s rights.
“The Air Force religious freedom regulations and practices are inconsistent with the Constitution and with current law,” the letter stated. “[The regulation] introduces a subjective and unworkable restriction on a leader’s ability to speak about their faith.”
During both the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns, several Republican candidates expressed their disapproval of the Obama administration’s decision to repeal DADT. Hopefuls Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson were particularly vocal about their desire to see the ban on gays reinstated.
However, U.S. president Donald Trump — despite voicing his opposition to gay marriage — was mostly ambivalent on the campaign trail about gays in the military and doesn’t seem to have strong feelings on the issue.
“Yes, if a gay person can be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or take another position of responsibility, why can’t they serve this country in the military?” Trump told The Advocate 17 years ago. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has clearly failed. Gay people serve effectively in the military in a number of European countries. There is no reason why they can’t serve in the United States.”
Although, Vice Pres. Mike Pence is outspoken about his belief that gay people are immoral, a harbinger of “societal collapse” and that their existence threatens traditional nuclear families.
Trump’s defense secretary Jim Mattis had expressed discomfort with repealing DADT, particularly when he was an active duty Marine. He suggested it could weaken unit cohesion and undermine military readiness. But by the time of his confirmation hearing in January 2017, his views seemed to have softened.
When New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand pressed Mattis on the future of gay troops in the military, his reply was “frankly senator, I’ve never cared about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.”
It seems the Air Force brass feel the same way about Goodwin.