Candidates challenged about gays in military

Times Staff Writer

In one of the more personal and direct confrontations during Wednesday’s CNN-YouTube debate, a 43-year military veteran who is gay pressed the Republican presidential candidates about why they didn’t support gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces.

Keith Kerr, a onetime colonel in the Army who retired as a brigadier general in the California National Guard, may not have been recognized by the audience or the four candidates who responded that current U.S. policy is sound.

But he is well known to those who have followed the issue of homosexuals in the military as one of two retired flag officers, along with Adm. Alan M. Steinman, to come out as gay and to call for repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell” military policy enacted under President Clinton.

Kerr has remained active on the issue since his groundbreaking 2003 disclosure and last summer took a position on a steering committee of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans who support New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. Clinton has also said that the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy has not worked.

That led to charges from some conservative commentators late Wednesday that Kerr’s question about gays in the military was planted by the Clinton campaign. Kerr denied in a telephone interview that the question was a setup and said the Clinton camp was “in no way attached” to his query.


The executive producer of the debate, CNN Vice President David Bohrman, said the cable network had taken some precautions, verifying Kerr’s military background and that he had not contributed to any presidential candidate.

“We regret this, and apologize to the Republican candidates,” Bohrman said. “We never would have used the general’s question had we known that he was connected to any presidential candidate.”

The retired officer, who lives in Santa Rosa, said that the policy of banning openly gay and lesbian individuals from military service had proved a failure because on average it drives two service people out of the armed forces per day, including much needed specialists such as surgeons and Arabic translators.

Kerr, 76, noted that armies in many other countries -- including Australia, Canada and Israel -- accept openly gay soldiers without problems.

The four candidates who answered Kerr’s question -- Rep. Duncan Hunter, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain -- all cited U.S. military leaders as suggesting that the current policy works.

Allowing openly gay and lesbian service people would be a “disservice” to the conservative recruits who make up the bulk of the military, Hunter argued.

Romney also had an awkward moment, when moderator Anderson Cooper reminded him of his 1994 statement that he looked forward to a day when homosexuals could serve “openly and honestly in our nation’s military.”

When pressed if he still stood by that statement, Romney said that he had originally believed “don’t ask don’t tell” didn’t “make any sense” but that it seemed to have succeeded.