President Donald Trump has named Heather Wilson, a Republican who served in the House of Representatives 1998–2009, to be the next Air Force secretary. Wilson is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, whose proximity to the epicenter of the religious right in Colorado Springs, Colorado has earned it a reputation for Christian bullying of its cadets. Which may be why Wilson, during a failed Senate bid in 2012, used a candidate debate to castigate a bill sponsored by Sen. Al Franken that was intended to reduce anti-LGBTQ bullying.
“We have to recognize as parents that children tease each other,” she said dismissively, whether it is for being “short” or “ugly” or “dumb” or “all kinds of differences.” The correct response, she said, is not to punish the bullies, but to “strengthen our children to be comfortable with themselves.” (She added that the bill was probably a violation of children’s religious freedom because it could limit their ability to “express an opinion with respect to homosexuality.”)
This is an appalling attitude to student behavior in any context. But it could be catastrophic when applied to an at-risk youth population such as LGBTQ kids, who have disproportionate rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide and are known to face bullying more often than their peers. It could be equally catastrophic in the setting of the U.S. military, which for many periods of its history has been virtually synonymous with both sexual harassment and anti-LGBTQ culture and policy—both of which undermine readiness.
Wilson’s record on LGBTQ equality is abysmal. She consistently earned a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign for her votes on LGBTQ issues. She refused to support federal nondiscrimination protections. She opposed expanding federal hate crimes law to add sexual orientation and gender identity. She not only opposed marriage equality and even civil unions, saying, contrary to all the evidence, that children do better with a mother and father, she also voted for a federal constitutional amendment to enshrine marriage discrimination in our founding document.
If Wilson’s views on bullying and homophobia were rooted in consistent principles, one might at least give her some credit for sincerity. What her record reveals instead is rank hypocrisy. The nominee’s “buck up and take it” approach rings utterly hollow because of an episode during her years as a congresswoman, when Wilson reacted strongly to the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which Janet Jackson’s nipple was exposed to all the wholesome children of America. Did Wilson shrug off the incident as something parents must steel their children to endure through strength of character?
“I should not have to use an NFL halftime show as a negative example to teach my children,” she wailed through tears at a congressional hearing designed to excoriate executives at Viacom. “You knew what kind of entertainment you’re selling,” she accused, “and you wanted us all to be abuzz, here in this room and on the playground in my kids’ school because it improves your ratings.”
It remains unclear if the new administration will target LGBTQ service members. But it’s not reassuring that Wilson is Trump’s nominee for Air Force secretary. Even if the official policy of inclusion remains safe, there are serious risks that a culture of homophobia or permissive “boys will be boys” views toward harassment could devastate cohesion and morale throughout the force.