Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Lucas Schleusener is the Director of Public Policy at QOMPLX and the Co-Founder and President of Out in National Security (ONS). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of QOMPLX or ONS.
You were part of the speechwriting team for three different Secretaries of Defense. What skills should aspiring speechwriters cultivate?
Speechwriters should cultivate the same skills essential for good leaders: a sense of humor, emotional intelligence, read widely, the ability to write well, and an array of lived experiences. Some examples: I came into the job from a strong academic and staffing background, but I also made a point that as I read about 200 books a year, as many as possible were outside of the standard Washington rubric of biographies, policy books, and kiss and tell memoirs--instead poetry, science, and queer literature. Emotional intelligence is key when collecting information and drafting remarks for a cabinet secretary; you have borrowed power, but you’ll return again and again to program offices, so a high EQ can help you understand others' feelings and smooth over policy initiatives or other challenges to build long-lasting and far-reaching relationships. Finally, I came into the job after substantial time in the Middle East and as a gay man committed to public service. Uniquely, I’d lived in nations that were American security cooperation partners or aid clients in the years just before and after the Arab Spring, giving me irreplaceable insight on the ground. As someone who received a clearance within the first decade it was legal to do so while be openly gay, I was able to extend particular fellow feeling toward other minorities and coalition seek/build within the Pentagon.
You are the co-founder of Out in National Security. Can you speak to your experience creating and building an organization? What hurdles did you have to overcome?
The hurdles I had to overcome started long before I founded ONS. In the national security sector, it’s formally and informally discouraged for minorities to advocate for themselves: you can either be a practitioner or a militant minority, and the latter is not serious. At DOD, I spent a lot of time monitoring my gender presentation to be taken seriously, despite my professional credentials and the time I spent in Central Command’s Area of Responsibility.
To launch ONS, I had to overcome internalized homophobia, learn to be a leader, and accept that I’d be better known as an advocate than an expert. Helping younger LGBTQIA+ folks come out and impacting law, custom, and policy has become more valuable to me over time, even as socially conservative groups have reviled our work.
Creating and building the organization was comparatively easy once I took that decision. I had unique credibility as a long-running DOD official. My co-founders, Shawn Skelly and Rusty Pickens, bring their own lived experiences and strengths that have made us uniquely effective. We swiftly got traction because each of us has a “hard” national security credential that predated our advocacy work.
Since founding ONS, what progress have you seen for the LGBTQIA+ community in the national security sector? What is there still to do?
Even with the end of the Mattis Policy (transban), efforts to end the Hyde Amendment (but not for servicemembers), and regulation revisions regarding military sexual assault, the sector, and its institutions require immense systemic change.
- First, directly combat transphobia and homophobia. Straight people are responsible for the policies and cultural failures that bar so many of us from joining in the first place, staying, and excelling. You can’t ask or expect us to do the demanding work of national security and make the vast policy and systemic changes necessary for the sector to be competitive in an age of great power competition (GPC). Many LGBTQIA+ professionals stay in the closet across the national security sector because of prior policies and inert institutional cultures--and we can tell when the sector executes hypocritical pinkwashing but still supports bad politics, policies, and politicians for us and our community. This is why it’s urgent to stop promoting “thought leaders” whose guiding policymaking towards LGBTQIA+ people is: “the cruelty is the point.” That phrase, coined to describe the policymaking of the prior administration towards disfavored minorities with the intent to deliver material and psychological harm. This attitude all too common feature of the beliefs and practices of academics, politicians, and uniformed service officers who are hailed and promoted in the national security sector. Their extreme animus towards LGBTQIA+ people is all too often treated as a difference of opinion or acceptable “religious” belief. It is unacceptable for the national security sector to promote these personalities, not only because they undermine democratic norms and success in GPC, but because they impose a higher cost on my community in what George Washington called “this sacred union of citizens.”
- Second, advocate for the passage and rigorous implementation of the Equality Act and LOVE Acts. The first should give my community tangible legal protections and fully recognized civil rights, without which many of us carry around extra burdens and pay extra costs, or leave for employers who treat us with respect. Second, the LOVE Act would hold the national security sector accountable for bureaucratic violence against our community, compensate victims, educate the public, and give us a voice in policy going forward.
- Third, be allies for non-binary folks. Educate yourselves, support changes in law, custom, and policy. For generations, the sector has shown a mixture of bigotry, indifference, and incompetence when we’ve sought to serve our country. Learn from past mistakes and try to do right by your friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
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