Q&A With Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell on Pride in 2020
On February 20, Richard Grenell was appointed Acting Director of National Intelligence, becoming the first openly gay DNI and cabinet member in American history. Not long ago, these words would have been an impossibility.
For decades, federal law made it so that no amount of education, experience, or intellect could brighten the tarnish of homosexuality in the security clearance process — the gateway into the Intelligence Community.
A landmark Executive Order in 1995 set the gears in motion for Grenell to ascend as Acting DNI 25 years later. What would generally be an individual achievement became a benchmark of progress for the U.S. LGBTQ+ community of an estimated 14.8 million.
In a Q&A with Grenell, the former Acting DNI shared what it means to be a first, personal moments of pride, and the power of allies.
ODNI: As the acting director of national intelligence, you were the first openly gay cabinet-level official. How does being the first make you feel and what challenges have you had to overcome to get here?
RG: It is not lost on me that many people have come before me to push for progress. I stand on the shoulders of many people who struggled, failed, and made hard-fought achievements, which is why I do what I can to help other LGBTQ+ members along their career paths.
I’ve made it clear that I am not asking for special treatment or special rights — just equal access and consideration. It is important to me that I not be defined by my sexual orientation — I want to be defined by my experience and skills. It undercuts all that I want to do in my career when I’m narrowly defined as a gay ambassador. I’d rather be known as the ambassador who got Germany to ban Hezbollah and finally take back the Nazi prison guard living in the US for over a decade.
ODNI: Throughout Pride Month, members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies celebrate with storytelling, parades, and public awareness campaigns. What is your personal history with Pride and when was the first time you felt a profound sense of pride in being gay?
RG: I remember walking onto the Mall in Washington, DC, in the summer of 1993 for the first March on Washington, which was also my first Pride event. I was overwhelmed by the crowd — I couldn’t believe there were this many gay people in the United States. As a young kid growing up in an Evangelical Christian home, I sometimes felt like I was the only one going through a crisis of faith brought on by the realization that I was gay. I have the best family in the world — super loving and supportive — but we didn’t know any gay people growing up and I didn’t know how to be gay and a Christian. I erroneously thought it was incompatible. The 1993 march was eye-opening for me because it proved that I wasn’t alone and didn’t have to hide. I set out then on my journey to find a way to be authentic, which for me meant asking a whole bunch of questions about the Bible and modern Christianity.
ODNI: In your roles as acting director of national intelligence and as U.S. ambassador to Germany, you have spoken out against laws that discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community and worked to decriminalize homosexuality. How have your personal experiences motivated you to speak out on LGBTQ+ issues in your current roles?
RG: Growing up in America, we are extremely lucky to have a very supportive society. Many Americans have differing public policy positions on issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community, but travelling a lot has helped me put this in perspective. The United States is the best country in the world for gays and lesbians, and there are many people from around the world — including from the LGBTQ+ community — who are desperate to come to America. I hear from these people every day; people who are brutalized and terrorized for being gay. I read every email, text, or message I get—and it is very hard to hear their stories of violence and fear.
ODNI: Who has been your biggest ally in your career and how did they empower you?
RG: This is such a good question! In some ways I have had allies like everyone else — people who believe in your skills and admire your work ethic. I would say Ari Fleischer and Ambassador Rich Williamson were great allies early on. I remember once when Ari wanted to promote me to a high-profile job. I said, “But, I’m gay and this may be an issue.” Ari flatly responded, “It shouldn’t matter to anyone and I will make sure it doesn’t.”
ODNI: What advice can you share with everyone in the Intelligence Community on being better allies of the LGBTQ+ community?
RG: The best ally for the LGBTQ+ community is someone who understands we are just like them.
ODNI: You are now working with the Harvey Milk Foundation to launch 69 country-specific decriminalization campaigns. Can you share an international story about how decriminalization has the power to change someone’s life and country for the better?
RG: I am incredibly proud to work with my friend Stuart Milk. Stuart’s energy and personality inspires me. Our work to decriminalize homosexuality around the world is a monumental task. We have to have 69 different strategies in this fight because what works in one doesn’t work in all. We have made progress in many countries thanks to truly brave and courageous activists working in the regions.
What I would say about our progress is something I learned in my own career over the years — the silent support has increased, but the difference is felt when the silent support becomes public support.
ODNI: Many LGBTQ+ members across the United States and world are still afraid to come out in fear of retribution and rejection. What advice would you give them?
RG: The most powerful way to change a heart or a mind is for them to know someone who is gay. It demystifies the idea. Your journey must include coming out, so find a support system of friends or certain family members and just do it. You will be disappointed later that it took you so long.