Retired CIA officer opens up about coming out as gay during 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' era: 'I was terrified every single day'

Kenny Leahman revealed his story around the same time President Biden pardoned thousands of LGBTQ veterans who were convicted by the military.

Kenny Leahman, wearing sunglasses, with mountains in the background.
Retired CIA officer Kenny Leahman is opening up about his journey of coming out as a gay man in the intelligence agency. (Kenny Leahman)

When Kenny Leahman interviewed for a CIA job in 1985, he was given a routine polygraph test involving a series of yes or no questions about illegal activity, drug use and espionage — but one line of questioning took him by surprise.

“They asked me directly, ‘Are you gay?’ and ‘Do you ever have gay thoughts?’” Leahman told Yahoo News.

Leahman, then 25, recalled his heart sinking with each probing question about his sexuality. Although deeply committed to his Mormon faith, his wife and their young child, he knew an honest answer would derail his career or, worse, make him a target within his own agency. So instead he responded “No” and, much to his surprise, passed the polygraph.

The truth was Leahman had been attracted to men his entire life. He’d kept it secret for nearly three decades before finally coming out as gay — first to his ex-wife, at 45, then to his three children, at 49, and eventually to his colleagues at the agency.

Leahman retired from the CIA in 2009 after serving for 24 years as a senior operations officer and Director of National Intelligence rep for a Joint Terrorism Task Force. He also volunteered to serve as a base chief in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

Now 66, Leahman said he’s sharing his coming-out story for the first time to be a “voice for change” in commemoration of Pride Month.

“I was living undercover both in the CIA and as a gay Mormon,” he explained. “I realized I have a voice. If there’s one person out there that’s frightened or living in fear, I want my story to give them hope.”

Leahman poses with his provincial chief and deputy chief while stationed in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2003.
Leahman poses with his provincial chief and deputy chief while stationed in Nuristan, Afghanistan, in 2003. (Kenny Leahman)

The 1980s were not kind to LGBTQ people in the federal government; it was a time when Leahman said he and others lived in “constant fear” of being outed at work.

“I was terrified every single day that I would get caught somehow and lose my job,” he explained. “I thought I’d be brought to headquarters, put in a basement cubicle and not have any authority.”

LGBTQ discrimination was built into the system long before Leahman arrived at the CIA. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an order banning LGBTQ people from serving in federal government, a time known as the “Lavender Scare.” Although the ban was lifted in the 1970s, gay and lesbian employees were still restricted from achieving security clearances in many cases until 1995, when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting such restrictions.

Leahman struggled to hide his secret at the height of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a 1993 policy signed by Clinton that forced LGBTQ military service members to hide their sexuality or risk being discharged.

“Explicit in that statement is ‘Don’t tell anybody,’” he said of DADT, which was repealed by President Barack Obama in 2011. “I felt greater fear as a result. If I do tell, then what are the repercussions? Or what if someone else tells?”

The policy, Leahman said, put the livelihoods of closeted CIA officers abroad at risk as well.

“If the CIA recruits a spy in a foreign government, and the foreign government gets wind of it, they really start to look,” he explained. “[DADT] opened the door to expanded speculation and impacted a fear factor. It turned up the heat.”

Yahoo News reached out to the CIA for comment but did not get an immediate response.

There were nights, Leahman explained, when he’d pray till sunrise for his attractions to go away — but they never did. Years of suppression hit a breaking point in 2000, when he started developing feelings for another man.

“I could see myself, finally, having the kind of relationship with another man I previously had not considered possible,” he said.

While stationed in Germany with his family in 2003, a close confidant encouraged Leahman to come out to his wife. When he did, she ended up being a huge support system. Together they made the decision not to tell the kids until his youngest graduated high school four years later.

“It was the opposite of what I feared,” said Leahman. “I thought she would tell the CIA or tell the Mormon church. Instead, she said, ‘I love you and I want you to stay.’ Her support helped me through the coming-out process. She maintained my cover with me.”

Leahman’s work later took him to Afghanistan, where he was part of a covert team gathering crucial intelligence on terrorist activities. It was there that rumors of his sexuality began surfacing on the base, which fueled a sense of anxiety.

“I was one of the most senior officers in our area and had upwards of 70 bodyguards,” he explained. “And yet, I was more scared of being outed and being caught than I ever was in Afghanistan under all the circumstances.”

Following his stint in Afghanistan, Leahman was due for a polygraph test, which officers are required to take every five years. It was then he decided to come out to the CIA, and there was no turning back.

“If I lose my job, so be it,” he told himself. Leahman and his wife had made the decision to divorce, which the CIA required him to disclose. When the officer administering the polygraph asked him why, Leahman replied, “Because I’m gay, and I’m terrified.”

The officer stopped the test and held his hand tightly. “It doesn’t matter,” they told him. “You shouldn’t have to go through this alone.”

With those words, Leahman felt the sense of relief he’d been craving for decades. He told his boss a few days later and, much to his amazement, received an even greater positive response.

“I had no idea you were living this cover,” Leahman’s boss told him, adding, “I hope you now feel free to perform as your full self. I can’t wait to see what you can do now.”

And just like that, years of mounting fear and anxiety were lifted.

Leahman smiles for the camera in front of a bookcase.
Now 66, Leahman said he wants to be a “voice for change” in the LGBTQ community. (Kenny Leahman)

“It took a severe amount of courage,” Leahman said of coming out. He’s since carried that message forward in a second career as a leadership coach and educator.

On Wednesday, President Biden pardoned thousands of LGBTQ veterans who’d been discharged due to a code that prohibited gay sex in the military, which had been enforced from 1951 to 2013.

Now married to his husband since 2017, Leahman says his greatest hope is to support LGBTQ service members who are “living in fear” of coming out as their authentic selves.

“When I came out, I realized my fears were misguided,” Leahman said. “I didn’t lose my career. I didn’t lose my family. In fact, I stepped into a much broader, richer life.

“There are thousands of individuals out there who want to serve our country,” he added. “I want them to know that the CIA, the military and the FBI all have out gay individuals who are serving honorably — and are welcome.”