It was a defining moment — as well as an exhilarating one — as America watched gay couple Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt stagger up to the placidly awaiting host Phil Keoghan.
“Reichen and Chip,” Keoghan said in his blandly overseeing way, “you are the winners of The Amazing Race.”
But at what cost did the million dollar win come to the couple whose identifying tagline “married” was viewed by millions of Americans week in, week out, all summer long?
One of those costs was their relationship, which, says Lehmkuhl has now officially come to an end. But among the benefits was a level of fame and visibility. Lehmkuhl is determined to put his celebrity muscle behind the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a cause not just important to this honorably discharged Air Force Captain (whose name is still listed on the inactive duty rosters), but to all those gays and lesbians who serve their country while keeping their sexuality under wraps.
It’s no little secret that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell doesn’t work — the number of annual caseloads at SLDN has surpassed the thousand mark. But will this year of gay visibility and sweeping social changes include a shift in attitude toward gays and lesbians serving openly in the military?
Lehmkuhl, who will be in Washington this Saturday, October 4, to speak at SLDN’s annual fundraising dinner, End the Witch Hunts, certainly hopes so. If only for all the friends he left behind at the Air Force, friends who still serve under the potential threat of having a career eradicated in an instant by one stray accusatory remark, one request for an investigation into a lifestyle. There may not be much telling or asking going on, but there are a record number of discharges. And that’s something this outspoken 29-year-old wants to see come to an end.
METRO WEEKLY: I’d like to start with a quick bio.
REICHEN LEHMKUHL: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a policeman and a nurse. My parents were divorced by the time I was five and my mother raised me and my older brother as a single mom. Because of the divorce and financial problems, we started out pretty poor. Then my mother met my stepfather — he was in Cincinnati on a business trip from Boston — and eventually they were married. When I was eight, my whole family moved to Boston to live with him. So from 8 to 18, I was raised in Boston. We lived a modest lifestyle, but we did have a summer home and a winter home in Maine. Things definitely improved with the stepfather situation.
MW: At about what age did you get interested in attending the Air Force Academy?
REICHEN: When I was sixteen. I got my congressional nomination from Barney Frank. In order to get into the Air Force Academy, you have to have a nomination from your congressman, a senator, or the Vice President of the U.S. Now that doesn’t mean you get in. You have to actually apply to the Academy, too. But your application is no good unless you have an endorsement from a congressman. And each congressman can only endorse two people a year. So it’s one of the most competitive school admission processes in the country. It’s been described as harder to get into than Harvard or Yale.
MW: What do you recall of your meeting with Congressman Frank?
REICHEN: I remember going to his office. And he was sitting across the office from me taking a break, eating. I was pretty enamored by the whole experience. I also knew that he was an openly gay congressman. This was back in 1994. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, is this going to be weird.” It was the first time in my life I’d sat down with a person who was openly gay. I had a great conversation with the guy, he was extremely well spoken and very smart and I walked out of there thinking, “He’s just like every other person.” See, I wasn’t out yet — I had no idea I was gay. I had a beautiful girlfriend and I was doing what all the other boys were doing in high school at that time.
MW: So you had no inclination towards guys at an early age?
REICHEN: If I did, I completely shut it out of my head and thought to myself, “Any inclination I have toward boys must be in all my other friends, too. They must feel it as well, so I’m normal.”
MW: What was the turning point for you?
REICHEN: I was at the Academy and I remember going to a friend’s room one night — it was really late. And I was talking about this certain guy and my friend said, “You like him, don’t you?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And my friend said, “You do! You’re gay!” And this friend took me to the person I was attracted to which led me to my first sexual experience with a guy. It was amazing.
I remember two days later, another good friend in my squadron pulled me aside and said, “I have to get this off my chest. It’s time for me to talk to someone — I’m gay.” And I was like, “I’m totally okay with that. No judgment, no judgment.” About three days later I came back to him and said, “You know what? I’m gay, too. That’s why I was so accepting of you.”
Eventually I started seeing a particular guy in secret at the Academy. I was filled with such love for this guy, feeling emotions I’d never experienced before in my life. I called my parents and told them I was sleeping in the same bed with him. Both my mother and my stepfather were on separate phone lines in the house. And they said “Is this something that you’re just doing now as an experiment? Or is this something you want to continue doing?” And I said, “This is something that I want to continue doing.” And my stepfather said, “Then you’re probably gay.” And I said, “Is that okay?” And my mom chimed in immediately, “Of course it is.”
They hung up pretty quickly because I think they had to have a meeting themselves. I talked to them the next day and my mom said, “We’re very scared for you. Because if this is what you feel that you are, you’re going to go through a lot of changes. You have a lot of explaining to do to your girlfriend. You have to contend with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You’re at the Air Force Academy, honey. You could get thrown out, you could lose this whole opportunity. You’re going to throw it all away. You can’t do this, you can’t do this.”
At the time, I think it was more difficult for my mother than my stepfather because my mother loved me having a girlfriend. She loved hobnobbing around and shopping with my girlfriend. She loved seeing me as a man. So she had a tough time accepting it. My stepfather was more like, “If that’s what you say then that’s okay, I love you.” Now my mom is like Mrs. PFLAG. She’s got websites on the internet and she’s known because of The Amazing Race for being this big supporter of gay rights. She’s completely done a one-eighty and has become a role model for so many parents.
MW: Did you consider leaving the Academy?
REICHEN: The first day of school your junior year of the Academy you may not leave. You are committed to two more years at the Academy and five years of active duty. If you choose to leave before that first day of class junior year, however, you don’t owe anything, you can just sign your name and be gone. I could have left. Because this happened at the end of my sophomore year. But I wasn’t about to give up everything I had just worked for.
MW: Yet you had to sacrifice who you truly are.
REICHEN: And I did. I discussed it with other friend who came out to me — by this time there were like twelve guys. We had all come out to each other and we had this little group going. It was all underground and in the closet. We were all very, very masculine, good-looking men that no one would ever think were gay.
MW: So you stayed the whole course.
REICHEN: I fulfilled my obligation quietly. I did not tell. And I was never asked. I made a pact, though, to myself: if I got out with an honorable discharge without ever making any fuss about being gay, that I would fight the system.
MW: Did you know of anyone who was discharged or investigated under DADT?
REICHEN: Two guys. Remember the guy I told you about who came out to me at the Air Force Academy? He actually got investigated in a huge way. He was on travel staying in a VOQ — Visiting Officer’s Quarters — at another base. Sometimes you get paired up in the VOQs with another person. There’s two beds in there. And he got paired up with this other person and these two adults consensually messed around all night long. And the next day the other individual, the guy that my friend didn’t know, got really scared about it. Meanwhile, my friend had called me to tell me about this wonderful guy he had met and how it was this really awesome experience and how he’d gotten his number and he thought it might be a new love interest. But the guy decided to turn my friend in. He lied and said that my friend approached him in his bed in the middle of the night and tried to perform oral sex on him. But my friend got a good lawyer and the case was dismissed. And he’s still a very successful officer.
The other one was a random discharge from the Air Force Academy. It was a similar case where two people messed around and one blew the whistle and the other one got kicked out. It just kills me how people can use this policy to destroy people’s lives.
MW: Did either of them utilize SLDN?
REICHEN: I don’t think they did. They had their own lawyers. Some people are probably too scared to even go to SLDN. They think, “Oh, my god, what am I going to do, run to a gay group?”
MW: Did you ever have the need to call on SLDN?
REICHEN: Yes. I called on SLDN when I was a lieutenant at a Los Angeles air force base. Some female enlisted person decided that I was gay because of something that I had said. I happen to think that she was monitoring my e-mails, actually — e-mails that were going back and forth from me and Chip. She had her evidence and apparently went to the Office of Special Investigation about me being gay. The OSI came in to ask me some questions, but what they told her when she called was “We don’t investigate that anymore. We don’t care about it.” So nothing did come of it. But I still called SLDN because it was a potentially hazardous situation and I got scared. And I’ll tell you, I felt so comfortable under their wing, knowing that someone was looking out for me. They said, “It’s okay.” They had a book — a survival guide — Fed Exed to me. It explained what all my rights were, what I should do, how I could get in trouble, how I couldn’t. It just made me feel so good, I’ll never forget it. It felt like falling off a building and someone catching you on this very, very soft pillow. And the reason that I continue to donate to SLDN is because I really believe in giving other people that same feeling.
MW: The current caseload for SLDN is at 1,100 — and with only three lawyers on staff, the organization is overwhelmed. Do you think the gay population in general is doing enough to help work toward lifting the ban?
REICHEN: No. We as gay people are not doing enough to help get rid of DADT and lift the ban. But it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because most gay people who aren’t affiliated with the military just don’t understand how drastic and how serious the issue is. You can still go to jail in the Air Force for being gay. I think if more people knew exactly how bad it is, they would stand up. Because we’re definitely not a minority group that sits back and lets things go by the wayside. We’re very outspoken — I think that’s the best part about our community.
That’s why I’m so involved with SLDN — I think that it’s our job to get that word out to gay people and let them know how bad it is. I think SLDN will be responsible — mark my words — for lifting the ban on gays in the military. And it’s going to have a huge social impact, not just on the military, but everywhere.
MW: Let’s talk about The Amazing Race for a moment. Whose decision was it to put the “Married” tagline beneath yours and Chip’s names?
REICHEN: We went into the show knowing that on the first Amazing Race, the gay couple were referred to as “Life Partners.” And Chip and I said, “We don’t want it to say ‘life partners.’ We consider ourselves married under God. We haven’t registered our relationship with the government because we’re not allowed to register our relationship with the government, but we had a ceremony. And we want to be known as married.”
So the producers met with the CBS executives and they made the decision to put married under our names. And when the show came out and people started protesting and picketing CBS one of the heads of public relations for CBS walked out and said to the people who were against it, “They’re married and they’re gay. What’s the issue?” And then she turned around and went back in the building. And CBS supported her on that.
MW: How did you and Chip meet?
REICHEN: I met Chip on January 12, 1999, at a party. I first saw him literally across a crowded smoky room. I was just smitten by him and thought he was so handsome. I approached him, pulled him into a stairwell and I kissed him. And he said, “Who the fuck are you?” That’s how we met.
We then took an eight month hiatus, because I was scheduled to move to Virginia for the Air Force. I didn’t talk for a while, because I was getting situated in my life. And [one three-day weekend] he visited me. And we had an amazing time. And we really fell in love that weekend and decided to make this thing a go even though I was in Virginia. So for a whole year, we flew back and forth between Virginia and Los Angeles every weekend.
We got married on February 2, 2002 at the Hotel Bel Air. We had about two hundred of our closest family and friends there.
MW: Did The Amazing Race put a strain on your relationship?
REICHEN: Yes. Through the race, we got to know each other really well because we saw each other put in situations that we had never seen before. And I think it augmented a lot of feelings — a lot of stuff that was good as well as the stuff that was bad.
But the real strain came after it was over. The day after we won, they called us into a meeting and said, “We’re not going to show The Amazing Race next week like we had planned. We’re going to wait six months.” We weren’t even allowed to tell anyone we had done The Amazing Race. And they told us that if the press found out that we were the ones who won, we would be sued for fifteen million dollars. So Chip and I only had each other for six months as a sounding board. And that put a lot of stress on the both of us because we had a lot of arguments. We kind of started falling apart.
When it finally started to show we were relieved, but then it became even harder because everyone was like “Did you win? Did you win?” And we had to be like, “Watch the show.” It was very anti-climactic for us.
MW: There have been rumors that you and Chip had broken up, that now you’re back together. What’s the real story?
REICHEN: We’re broken up. It was official this past Sunday. We’ve been trying since we got back from the race to get along and work things out and it’s just wasn’t happening. And we decided last Sunday in a very emotional discussion and conversation that it was best to just let each other go. So we’re both now single, officially.
It’s extremely hard to talk about. We love each other so much that we were willing to make ourselves miserable to keep the other person happy. And I’m not going to go into the intricate details of our problems because they really are our business and that’s something we’ll never discuss with people. But from the outside we’re very sad about it. I still cry once a day.
MW: Do you think you’d still be together had you not done the race?
REICHEN: I think the race added some big stress, but I think the problems that Chip and I have are out of the scope of the race. So I don’t think going on the race or winning it had anything to do with it. I love watching episodes of the race and seeing how well Chip and I worked together. Because we were such an awesome team. And I wish that Chip and I could be the team that we were on the race in real life, but we’re not.
MW: Do you think not being a couple diminishes your role model status?
REICHEN: No. I think Chip and I are role models in the way that we split up. We really put a lot of effort into trying to get back together, into trying to be in love with each other again like we were once. And it didn’t work out. But there were financial issues with the break-up because your lives are so intertwined, where you have to divide up property and automobiles and things that you have collected over the years. I wish someone could have had a reality TV camera on the civil and loving way that we were able to handle ourselves in the split up without letting our feelings get in the way. We came to an agreement on all the financial stuff and both came out of it feeling really awesome. We didn’t make it nasty because I think that we saw our relationship and our ability to be together as a privilege. Especially me, after coming out of the Air Force and seeing that you can’t take it for granted. Not everywhere can gay people be together and be open. So everything was done very fairly. Still, I feel a tremendous loss right now because half of my stuff is gone and half of his stuff is gone, including him.
Reichen Lehmkuhl will be the special guest at SLDN’s End the Witch Hunts dinner and silent auction, Saturday, October 4, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. For information on attending, call 202-328-3244, ext. 105 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about SLDN, visit www.sldn.org.