Air Force Academy, citing “privacy,” angrily refuses to discuss anti-gay bias on campus

In a defensive, and at times outright angry, conference call with reporters this afternoon, the Air Force Academy admitted that its press release yesterday describing a meeting the superintendent of the academy, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, had with gay cadets this week was not entirely accurate.

In that release, the academy claimed that the cadets expressed no concerns about any anti-gay culture on campus, or about anything else, other than a supposed concern that the media coverage of the story was hurting the academy.

But then, during the conference call, some cadets slipped and admitted that other concerns were raised during the meeting with Gen. Johnson.  And then they admitted to even more concerns.  And that’s when the academy’s media representatives finally snapped.

When confronted with the fact that the academy had just admitted that, in fact, concerns about being gay at the academy were raised by gay cadets with General Johnson, academy representatives invoked “privacy” and angrily shut down any discussion of what those concerns were, saying they weren’t going to air their “dirty laundry” on a conference call the academy set up to discuss the fact that no concerns were raised at the meeting.  At one point, the academy media rep even threatened to shut down the entire press conference.

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy

It was a strange call, to put it mildly.

The call was held after it was reported the Air Force Academy hired an ex-gay “cure” expert

A good number of local and national media was there, including Buzzfeed and Stars & Stripes.

Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed in particular got into a pointed discussion with the academy representative, after the academy rep accused me of being “unprofessional” for pointing out the fact that they were all contradicting each other. (More on that below, including a transcript.)

Taking a step back for a moment.  This issue arose when we broke the story earlier this week that the Air Force Academy hired a nearly 20-year expert in “curing” homosexuality to head up their character and leadership coaching program that all cadets are required to go through.

The controversy over that issue grew to the point where General Johnson called in a group of two dozen or so gay cadets to ask if there were any concerns about homophobia in cadet culture generally, and from fellow cadets.  Multiple sources confirm that the overwhelming majority of gay cadets present at that meeting expressed their concerns about cadet culture being anti-gay.

In spite of this fact, the Air Force Academy issued a press release yesterday (Thursday) morning, claiming that no concerns were raised about any problem gay cadets have had on campus.  None.

Well, the academy admitted that there was one concern the cadets allegedly raised repeatedly – they were worried that all these media stories about anti-gay bias at the academy would hurt the academy’s recruitment.  (One source has already said that, in fact, no cadet raised that concern at the meeting.)

Air Force Academy claimed no concerns were raised at meeting with general

Here’s the salient parts of the academy’s release from yesterday about the meeting the gay cadets had with the general earlier in the week:

In that forum, the cadets expressed to Academy leaders that they are proud to be in the Air Force and do not feel like the Air Force Academy culture inhibits them in any way.  Rather, they expressed their concerns about the media reports and how those reports may affect the decision of young Americans to attempt to come to the Academy.

One attendee at the forum was Air Force Capt. Michelle L. Reinstatler, an Instructor, Department of English and Fine Arts, and the Officer in Charge of Spectrum.

“During the forum with leadership, the cadets of Spectrum expressed multiple times that the Academy is a safe and validating place to be LGBQ,” Capt. Reinstatler said.  ”Several cadets have told me they are frustrated with the articles disparaging USAFA; these articles do not take into account the extensive support our LGBQ cadets have received from Academy leadership or the reality of the Academy’s inclusive environment.” [emphasis added]

We also learned during the call that Capt. Reinstatler is straight.  She’s also not the head of the gay group.  She’s the equivalent of the faculty adviser.  But you’ll note how the press release doesn’t say that, and that it leads you to believe that she’s a lesbian and that she runs the group – after all, why would the only person quoted with any affiliation to the gay group, in a release about how the gay cadets have no problems at the academy, be a heterosexual who is only the faculty adviser and not the head of the group or even a cadet?

I asked the cadets if the release was accurate, that no concerns were raised at the meeting

As for the substance of the release, the phrase “the culture doesn’t inhibit them in any way” caught my eye.  So I asked the cadets, and Capt. Reinstatler, to re-validate that claim, since I had multiple sources saying multiple concerns were raised at the meeting about being gay at the academy.

The cadet, named Carol (no last names were divulged), who responded to me said only three concerns were raised at the meeting with the general, and I quote verbatim:

“Sir, this is Carol speaking. These were the concerns addressed at that meeting:”

“1. Would these articles that were written hurt recruitment of possible high school students interested in the academy because they had the incorrect perception of the academy and how they treated LGBQ cadets.”

“2.  Also how can we increase training at the academy so the faculty… can be more aware of the situations that go on in the LGBQ community.”

3. “The other issue that was raised by the cadets was, we didn’t want those articles to disparage the academy, and we wanted to put our voice forward.”

(Remember how earlier the “only” concern raised was the media. Now there was another concern, apparently, and it actually dealt with gay issues.) So I had an immediate follow-up question:

ME: So no one’s been having problems being gay there at all?

ACADEMY REP: That’s not what she’s trying to say, we don’t know every….

ME: Did it come up or not? My question was did this come up or not during, that people have concerns about being gay at the academy?


Then Capt. Reinstatler weighed in:

Air Force Capt. Michelle L. Reinstatler

Air Force Capt. Michelle L. Reinstatler

CAPT. REINSTATLER: In fact, Carol is totally correct about the things that were brought up. None of the cadets particularly expressed issues that they had being gay at the academy.

A few did bring up some issues that they had, that were being fielded and worked on by their leadership.  And that they felt that they were being cared for, and that taking into consideration. This meeting that Gen. Johnson and the rest of the leadership came down to take about, was to make sure that the cadets of Spectrum (the academy gay group) felt cared for and loved….

There we no particular concerns of being gay at the academy brought up by any of the cadets.

So there were no issues, but there were some issues, and those issues were being dealt with, but let me close by saying there were no issues.

I pointed out in the next round of questioning that we had a bit of a contradiction here as:

1. The academy press release claimed that the only issue that came up during the meeting with the general was the cadets’ supposed-concern that the media coverage was hurting the academy.

2. But then, Cadet Carol admits that a second issue did in fact come up, about how to increase training (a sort of gay sensitivity training, I’m told).

3. When I followed up and asked if anyone raised any other issues about having problems being gay at the academy, I was told “no.”

4. Then Capt. Reinstatler reiterates that no other issues came up, but then she says that other issues did in fact come up and that they’re being dealt with.  But then reiterates that no other issues came up.

You can imagine our confusion.

That’s when the Air Force Academy reps lost their cool

So I asked them to detail the additional issues the gay cadets apparently did raise, after we were told repeatedly, including in the academy’s press release, that no issues were raised beyond hating on the media.

That’s when the academy reps started to lose their cool:

CAPT. REINSTALTER (who was clearly angry at this point): This is Captain Reinstalter, and the concerns were not “raised.” They were telling us information about how it was being dealt with. This is the thing.

ME: Right.

CAPT. REINSTALTER: We cannot tell you specifics of those things because that is privacy information. And that is the cadets’ personal lives, and I am not going to air their laundry in front of everyone here.

ME: With all due respect… (then Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner jumps in)

That’s when Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner jumped in, pointing out the obvious contradiction between the concern that all the media attention was harming the academy, and the notion that we were somehow violating the cadets’ privacy, when it was the academy that set up the media call in the first place with the cadets:

BUZZFEED’S CHRIS GEIDNER: I’m sorry, I’m going to jump in here. When several of us on this call covered Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, and have been following this stuff for a long time, and the question here, when you set up a call with three cadets, and say that the concern was that maybe the media attention would cause problems for the academy. As a reporter, how am I supposed to take this seriously?… Seriously, as a reporter, I’m wondering when you’re claiming the main concern is negative media coverage, and then you set up a call with three cadets. How are we supposed to take this (concern) seriously?

And I’d argue it’s even more nonsensical than Chris notes.   This call was held to show the media that gay cadets do not have a problem with their day to day lives on campus, and that concerns were not raised during the meeting with the superintendent other than concerns about the media.  So how can asking about those concerns, now that the academy admits they fibbed in saying there were no concerns, be off-limits, when they were the entire point of the call in the first place? Let me quote you the academy’s email explaining the purpose of the call:

Subject matter is limited to the cadets’ experiences at the Air Force’s Academy, how they feel about the culture and climate here, the support our LGBQ cadets have received from Academy leadership, and the reality of the Academy’s inclusive environment from their first-hand experience.  If you wish to discuss anything not related to these topic areas, please let us know and we will see about arranging other support.

Interesting. So, now, the “reality of the academy’s inclusive environment from their first-hand experience” was an offensive invasion of the cadets’ right to privacy and an attempt to “air their dirty laundry” in public. In fact, that was the entire purpose of setting up the conference call in the first place.

One other point.  Where was the cadets’ “right to privacy” when the academy’s press release, and the academy reps in attendance at today’s conference call, detailed the other “concerns” supposedly raised by the cadets at the meeting – namely, all the hating on the press, and the LGBQ training?  The only “concerns” that the Air Force Academy angrily protects behind a veil of “privacy” are the concerns the conference call was set up to address, the reality of the academy’s inclusive environment.  Not very consistent, and not very convincing.

As I said, it was an amazing call.

Oh but it got even better.

I get yelled at for politely asking why the cadets can’t answer questions about the very topic the call was devoted to

After Chris Geidner asked his question, and before anyone responded, the academy media guy jumped in and totally lost it:

ACADEMY MEDIA REP: Hang on, the cadets all want to jump in on this one, but let me jump….

BUZZFEED’S GEIDNER: No, I ‘d like Capt. Reinstatler or the media person to answer that first.

ACADEMY MEDIA REP: I am the media person, and you’re taking our press release somewhat out of context. We said that one of the reasons we were holding this was because of some of the reports in the media, yes that’s true, but that’s one of a number of reasons we’re doing this, one of which we didn’t put in the press release, and I hope that you as a professional reporter understand, is transparency.

ME: But you just told us the cadets cannot answer questions about what concerns were raised at a meeting, when you are holding this press conference to convince us that no concerns were raised. That’s a little odd.

ACADEMY MEDIA REP: Okay, if you’re going to be unprofessional, we can end the call for you and let the other reporters get what they need, cuz we’re trying to help out a number of reporters here sir, and you’re only one of them.

BUZZFEED’S GEIDNER: There are two of us asking the same sort of questions.  And the question wasn’t answered. I mean [garbled] you’re saying that there were concerns raised, but then indignantly saying we’re not going to get into their personal lives. Make up your mind. Is the call about transparency or not.

ACADEMY MEDIA REP: Have you heard about the privacy act? I’m sure you have, as a professional reporter, and I know your colleagues are well aware of it.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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