A Colorado Democrat who last year became the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress took his place Friday on the U.S. Air Force Academy's supervisory board.
Rep. Jared Polis was appointed earlier this month to the Academy's Board of Visitors, which meets Friday and Saturday in Colorado Springs. He is thought to be the first openly gay member serving on an oversight board at any service academy.
The boards report to Congress and the Pentagon on how the academies are doing, including recommendations for change.
Polis opposes the military's ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers and has twice proposed, then withdrawn, amendments to undo "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies. Polis' appointment, made by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has veterans on both sides of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" debate wondering if it's a signal change is coming.
"We're all reading the tea leaves here," said Tricia Heller, a Class of '87 Air Force Academy graduate who flew C-9 jets for the Air Force before the leaving the service four years ago and coming out.
"I'm not saying 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is going away. We can't say that. But this is a good sign," said Heller, now an attorney in Windsor, Colo. She's one of about 70 members of the Blue Alliance, an alumni group of gay and lesbian Air Force Academy graduates, plus some straight alums who want to end the ban on gays in the military.
Polis says he doesn't plan to push for change through the Board of Visitors but did repeat his opposition to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gay, lesbian and transgendered servicemembers.
Asked about the policy, Polis said he expects Congress will start debating as soon as this fall a repeal of the 1993 ban on gay servicemembers.
"We expect that to end shortly, and I look forward to being a value to the Academy in making the transition," Polis said.
Voices of favor, opposition
Polis' appointment has sparked a sometimes-fiery debate on military blogs, and even some fellow Board members say they're perplexed by his appointment. If he were a student at the Academy, Polis would be kicked out.
"This is not the direction I would choose," said former Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from North Carolina who is on the Board and supports the military's ban on gay servicemembers. Hayes was careful to point out he would welcome Polis to the Board, but Hayes said the military's ban should stand — especially at the service academies.
"This is certainly a topic of discussion, but to be perfectly frank, I don't think sexual orientation should be criteria for the diversity we're working for" at the academies, Hayes said.
Pelosi said in her announcement that the Polis appointment reflects the nation's diversity. An aide said she wouldn't elaborate on that but said Pelosi opposes the military's gay ban.
For opponents of gays in the military, though, the Polis appointment signals a step closer to undoing the 1993 ban.
"This is more than a signal," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Washington-based Center For Military Readiness, a group of mostly civilians that favors banning gays from service. "I think when you're talking about the service academies, you're talking about the future of the military leadership. So this appointment, it appears to be advocacy."
Polis said he would stress tolerance, but not bring up changing the gay ban.
"I hope that LGBT cadets feel comfortable" at the Air Force Academy, he said.