Updated: May 15
Colin Powell recently died from COVID-19 complications at the age of 84. Powell had battled multiple myeloma before testing positive for COVID-19. His family delivered the news in a Facebook post: “General Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away this morning due to complications from Covid 19." The former Secretary of State was fully vaccinated.
Aside from his instrumental role in the invasion of Baghdad, critics railed at Powell’s support for “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a policy that banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military. In 1993, Bill Clinton aimed to lift the ban, but Powell, then Chief of Staff, opposed Clinton’s campaign promise, arguing that homosexuals were “incompatible” with military preparedness.
In March 1993, the House of Representatives held public hearings on the matter. Powell and other military leaders believed homosexuals were antithetical to military “cohesion.”
During the Cold War, the Civil Service Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigations prevented the hiring of gay federal employees. Congress believed homosexuals were more susceptible to communism and treachery. Though the ban on homosexuals ended in the 1970s, the belief that homosexuals were unfit for federal employment survived the fall of the Soviet Union. Powell was perpetuating a belief that preceded him and extended beyond the military.
The disagreement between Clinton and military leaders resulted in a “compromise.” Gays in the military could not disclose their sexuality; in exchange, the policy restricted the military from inquiring about the sexuality of service members. Known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the law would endure for 17 years before its repeal during the Obama administration.
Powell later reversed his position. Following General John Shalikashvili’s embracement of gay’s in the military, Powell expressed only tepid support.
“I agree with General Shalikashvili that America has changed and is ready for gays to serve openly,” Powell told a Washington Blade reporter.
“I am not convinced, however, that military commanders are ready for that change.” Years would pass before his complete evolution.
Finally, in 2012, Powell supported Obama’s decision to lift the ban. “I have no problem with it [Obama’s decision], and it was the Congress that imposed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ though it was certainly my position and my recommendation,” he told CNN.
In the same interview, Powell promoted same-sex marriage but deferred to the "law of the state" for providing marriage equality, again mirroring the status quo.
Powell’s presentation to the UN regarding Iraqi WMD and Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda will forever eclipse his role in “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
For most of his career, he neglected the topic of gay rights. Fortunately, the former Secretary of State eventually reversed his position after 17 years of homophobic discrimination. Regardless, Powell leaves a polarizing legacy, one that journalist will continue to admire and rightfully criticize. After suffering from multiple underlying illnesses, Powell succumbed to COVID-19 on October 18th.