Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Assistant secretary of defense and Pentagon spokesperson Pete Williams was outed as gay by The Advocate magazine, embarrassing his employer, the U.S. Defense Department, which has a policy prohibiting lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from serving openly in the military.

Summary of Event

When a photograph of Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams appeared on the cover of the August 27, 1991, issue of The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, the Pentagon’s chief press spokesperson became the latest in a string of celebrities and government officials to be “outed” to the public. The headline accompanying William’s photograph read, “Did this man…Ruin 2,000 Lives? Know About the Suicides? Waste Taxpayers’ Millions on Military Witch-hunts? The outing of Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams.” [kw]Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams, The (Aug. 27, 1991) [kw]Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams, The Advocate (Aug. 27, 1991) [kw]Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams, The Advocate Outs (Aug. 27, 1991) [kw]Williams, The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete (Aug. 27, 1991) Advocate, The;outing of Pete Williams[Williams] Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban] Media;and outing[outing] Outing;The Advocate and[Advocate] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams[2100] [c]Military;Aug. 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams[2100] [c]Publications;Aug. 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams[2100] Williams, Pete Signorile, Michelangelo Cheney, Richard B.

Media scholar Larry Gross Gross, Larry has traced the practice of political outing—revealing the sexuality of closeted lesbians or gays against their will—to practices in imperial Germany during the early 1900’s. The threat of outing as a political tool briefly resurfaced during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s. Outing also occurred in the early 1990’s, when gay journalists, who historically had protected the lives of closeted lesbian and gay notables, began to resent the hypocrisy of powerful and politically connected lesbians and gays who either refused to use their influence to help with issues important to the gay and lesbian community or, worse, actively worked against these interests.

Michelangelo Signorile, who wrote the article on Williams, had pioneered the practice of outing public officials when he worked at OutWeek, Outweek (magazine) a now-defunct gay and lesbian magazine. Signorile had been buoyed by the publicity the article received as well as the controversy it generated.

Williams had become a highly visible member of the administration of President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. during the Gulf War in 1991. During the height of the war, Williams’s name was in newspapers and his face was on television Television;and outing of Pete Williams[outing of Pete Williams] screens almost daily. Less visible to the general public was his gay identity, although it had been well known in Washington circles for some time. Williams was generally well liked and respected within the Beltway, and he had been mentioned as a possible White House press secretary.

Williams’s professional career had begun on the other side of the cameras and microphones in the 1970’s as a reporter for a television station in his hometown of Casper, Wyoming. From there, he went to Washington to serve as press secretary for Wyoming congressman Richard Cheney. When Cheney went to the Defense Department as secretary in 1989, Williams went with him as his chief public affairs officer. His favored status in the Department of Defense, however, coincided with an increasingly aggressive Pentagon policy of exposing and discharging members of the military who were thought to be lesbian or gay, including a number of highly decorated officers. By one estimate, the number of discharged service personnel had topped ten thousand during the 1980’s.

The Defense Department directive declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and claiming that the presence of lesbians and gays in the armed forces “adversely affects the ability of the military services to maintain discipline, good order and morale” actually dates to 1943, though enforcement for much of that time was lax and inconsistent.

While The Advocate, which has been published since 1967, is generally considered to be a respected and credible chronicler of events and issues within the lesbian and gay communities, its readership outside those communities is sparse. The treatment of the story by more mainstream media varied. Many newspapers, including The Washington Post, and the major television networks refused to pick up the story. Other media reported that a major figure within the Defense Department had been outed but did not identify Williams by name. A few, such as the Oakland Tribune and the Detroit News, printed the story with a photograph of Williams.

After the story broke, Secretary Cheney said he would not ask Williams to resign. Williams himself refused all comment. When asked at a Pentagon briefing whether he was gay, he said he was paid to discuss government policy, not his personal life.

Significance

Though rumors of closeted homosexuality had swirled around celebrities and political figures for years, Pete Williams’s face was arguably the most familiar of those gays outed during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. His almost nightly presence on television screens in living rooms across the country during the Gulf War brought heightened visibility, likewise, to the controversial practice of outing.

The coverage of The Advocate story by other media, most of which chose not to mention Williams by name, fueled the debate over the ethics of outing and, more broadly, over the proper journalistic boundaries between public and private. Historically, reporters assigned to cover governmental bodies and officials—whether at the local, state, or federal level—had kept the personal secrets of those about whom they wrote, sexual and otherwise. However, the combination of increased media competition, audience appetite for voyeuristic celebrity stories, and younger journalists unwilling to play by the rules of the old boys’ network had made the boundaries permeable, if not obsolete.

It can be argued that the fallout from the Williams story had far broader public policy implications. Together with the increased activism by groups opposed to the ban on military service by lesbians and gays, the seeming hypocrisy in the Pentagon—on one hand, aggressively discharging both open and closeted gays and lesbians from the service ranks and, on the other hand, employing a closeted gay as its chief public face—placed the question of that policy’s fairness front and center. Only months later, presidential candidate Bill Clinton would campaign against the ban in the 1992 election. His efforts to fulfill that campaign pledge in early 1993 were met by hostility from key members of Congress, forcing him reluctantly to support the superficially fairer Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy.

For Williams, the incident proved to be a mixed blessing. Though public disclosure of his homosexuality and the defeat of George H. W. Bush in 1992 effectively precluded him from advancing his career as media spokesperson for the executive branch, his new visibility and Washington contacts prompted NBC News to hire him in 1993 as a Washington-based correspondent covering the Justice Department and the U.S. Supreme Court. As of 2006, he was still a television correspondent in Washington. Advocate, The;outing of Pete Williams[Williams] Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban] Media;and outing[outing] Outing;The Advocate and[Advocate]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, C. “Why Outing Must Stop.” Village Voice, March 19, 1990, p. 37.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cassidy, John. “’Outing’ Claims Pentagon Victim.” Sunday Times, August 11, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gross, Larry. “Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing.” In The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, edited by Larry Gross and James D. Woods. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Signorile, Michelangelo. “How I Brought Out Malcolm Forbes—And the Media Blinked.” Village Voice, April 3, 1990, p. 23-24.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

1967: Los Angeles Advocate Begins Publication

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress

1985: GLAAD Begins Monitoring Media Coverage of Gays and Lesbians

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

May 30, 1987: U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay

October 11, 1988: First National Coming Out Day Is Celebrated

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

1995: The Advocate Outs Oscar Nominee Nigel Hawthorne

1995: Athlete Louganis Announces He Is HIV-Positive

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