With the exception of a few shining examples, most comic books are content to be more about flash and style than substance. Luckily for us, out television personality and gay activist Reichen Lehmkuhl is on a mission to turn a piece of his family history into a comic book and feature film with a timely message.
The model and former Air Force officer first launched into the public gaydar in 2003 as a winning contestant on the reality competition “The Amazing Race.”
(He also dated one of the guys from N’Sync, but that’s not all that important now or ever, is it?)
Lehmkuhl then went on to appear on a number of television shows, like “Frasier,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “Days of Our Lives” and “The Young & The Restless.” He can currently be seen starring as Trevor on Here!’s “Dante’s Cove.”
Not content to just soak up the limelight, Lehmkuhl has used his heightened profile to draw attention to the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers and issues that affect them. He’s hosted a number of cable-TV shows on the subject and wrote a book in 2006, “Here’s What We’ll Say,” detailing his time in the military, hiding the fact that he was gay and highlighting what he needed to do to make it through the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Since leaving the military, Lehmkuhl has devoted a great deal of his time to speaking out against the military ban, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I’ve been speaking at colleges, universities and Congressional functions,” Lehmkuhl said. “I’m basically giving people my side of the story, what I went through under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and being in the military. I educate and bring as many people as I can up to date on the present situation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — what the current laws are, how many people continue to be discharged on a daily basis, being court-marshaled or being treated like animals. One of the first things that happens when you are accused of being gay in the military is a mental evaluation. They really shook down someone’s dignity on top of being disrespectful to someone who has served our country.”
Lehmkuhl’s latest project probably means as much to him as his fight against the military ban, as it addresses issues of marginalized servicemembers as well as shines a light on a piece of World War II history that is seldom talked about and very personal to him.
“The Wasps” — Women Air-Force Service Pilots — written and produced by Lehmkuhl and gay-owned Bluewater Productions, is a time-travel comic-book adventure inspired by the Lehmkuhl’s grandmother and WASP pilot, Betty Turner Stagg.
“I’ve had it in my head for a couple of years now,” Lehmkuhl said. “I wrote a book called ‘Here’s What We’ll Say,’ which in the beginning is about my grandmother and how she was a pilot in World War II. I dedicated the book to her because she taught me how to fly. When I got the call from Bluewater Comics to talk about doing some kind of comic-book series related to my book and my life, this is what we came up with. My dream was a fantasy situation where I get to go back in time and actually fly with my grandmother back in 1942, when she was learning how to fly and getting her wings.”
In the early years of World War II, the WASPs broke down gender barriers in the Air Force as the military branch faced a significant problem: Thousands of new airplanes were coming off assembly lines and needed to be delivered to military bases nationwide, but most available pilots were overseas fighting the war. The government launched an experimental program to train women pilots — the WASPs — to fly military aircraft. The WASPs would eventually number in the thousands, freeing up male pilots for combat service.
Lehmkuhl said that while the WASPs played a significant role in the war effort, the military didn’t recognize their contributions until much later.
“When the WASPs existed, there wasn’t a system set up where they were respected or honored for what they did,” he said. “The WASPs were disbanded in 1944 by the U.S. Army Air Corps, which is not the present-day Air Force. The women were given no rights, no veterans’ benefits and they even had to pay their way home after serving their country. It was a tough situation for them. It wasn’t until 1976 that they were given veteran status through Congress. And then it wasn’t until 2009 that women who served in the WASPs received a Congressional gold medal. My grandmother’s dead but we’ll be receiving her medal as a family in her honor.”
Creating “The Wasps” is a dream come true for Lehmkuhl, who admits spending a considerable part of his childhood as a comic-book reader.
“I was a big fan of Marvel Comics when I was a kid,” he said. “I think it’s cool that a lot of these characters are being pitched as movies.”
Because this story is first coming out in the form of a comic book and then a motion picture, Lehmkuhl said the details of his grandmother’s “adventures” will veer more toward the fantastic than real life.
“The comic series will bring to light how the WASPs played a role, but a secondary role as far as everyone was concerned in the military at that time,” he said. “A lot more of a big deal is made about my grandmother. That’s part of the fantasy for me. She’s actually put on a pedestal, when in the real time she wasn’t.”
He also said the WASPs and their struggle can be seen as a reflection of how gays and lesbians serve and yet still struggle for acceptance in the armed forces.
“There is a huge parallel to the way gays are treated in the military today,” he said. “They need you there just like they needed the WASPs to ferry the planes from base to base and for maintenance. But when it came right down to it, they just discarded them at the end and didn’t give them the respect they truly deserved for serving like everybody else. It’s the same with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ The military definitely needs the soldiers.”
As an example, Lehmkuhl points to the stop-loss policy, which allows the military to unilaterally extend a soldier’s commitment beyond his/her discharge date.
“Even if someone was found out to be gay,” he said, “they were allowed to serve until the end of their tour and then they had to go. They weren’t discharged right away, which really exposes the hypocrisy of the whole policy.”
Lehmkuhl’s character in “The Wasps” is intended to be gay but his sexuality, while significant, isn’t crucial to the plot, he said.
“My character is gay just by association. It’s not a huge part of the comic series to make him a gay character. We’re handling it in a very cool way. It’s kind of like a ‘So what? He happens to be gay.’ He’s an F-16 pilot and he happens to be gay — it’s really great that no one cares. He has a love interest in the comic and that will be the only other gay character. It’ll be implied that he’s gay. You won’t see any pages with the character marching in a gay Pride parade, but you’re not going to see any pages where the character denies in any way that he’s gay.”
Lehmkuhl added that even though he is one of the main characters, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be cast in the lead, or any role for that matter, for the big-screen, live-action version of “The Wasps.”
“I’m definitely going to be a producer on the project,” he said about the movie. “I requested that I get to narrate the film if there is any [narration] necessary. It would be great if there was a role that were right for me, but I’m not the kind of person who would push myself into the film just so I can be in it. I want it to be perfect, so the right people will be cast for the right roles. I would only want to do that if it was fair and square.”
“The Wasps” is scheduled to hit bookshelves in 2010. For more information, visit www.bluewaterprod.com.