Viewpoint: In times of social change, where does leadership begin?

Sam Waltz

What’s the role for business leaders in navigating, if not leading, social change?

That thought occurred to me as I contemplated the circumstances around this month’s golden anniversary — that’s 50 years, folks — of the June 28, 1969, “Stonewall Riots” in Greenwich Village, New York City. That date is generally marked as the beginning of the LGBT civil rights movement.

I guess I’m at a “precious time” of life, having lived long enough that the 50th anniversaries of a lot of things I saw and observed firsthand are rolling around. The moon landing. Khrushchev’s promise to bury us with socialist Communism. Civil rights. The anti-war riots. Just so much more.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why,” Mark Twain is famously reported to have said.

Reflection doesn’t necessarily lead to regrets, or at least it shouldn’t. I’ve often thought the inscription on my headstone should read, “He did the best he could with what he had!”

As a Christian, Boy Scout, and Vietnam-era veteran of the U.S. Army CounterIntelligence, someone arguably disadvantaged by the poverty of growing up in rural (really rural) America on a sharecropper’s farm, I’ve been blessed to see a lot and do a lot. 

That brings me to one of my personal regrets concerning social change.

It was June 1968, about a year before the Stonewall Riots. As a young soldier, stationed at Fort Meade just outside Baltimore, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Post Library, reading and enjoying the peace. (Actually, I think it was Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” which I remember reading about that point.)

As I did, a young man in Army uniform came across the parking lot and “hit on me.”I turned him down graciously. No big deal, not my thing. I was not homophobic.

But it’s what I did next that to this day still bothers me.

In the military culture of the era, homosexuality was to be eschewed. Moreover, in the intelligence community, not only were we warned against it, we were directed and ordered to report any such contact. SAEDA — Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army – was the chorus we sang. 

The intelligence community of the 1960s was almost clinically paranoid — for good reason. Sex, including both illicit sex as well as homosexuality, were tools in the enemy’s tool kit of turning intelligence community members to work for the enemy.

As a result, as I thought about it after, I did what my standing orders said. Given that the man was in uniform, I reported him by name to my commander, because our orders were to report any such contact. No discretion seemed to exist.

I have no idea what happened after that. To the incident report. To the case. To the man who propositioned me.

But, over the years, as I’ve occasionally reflected on it, it has come to haunt me with regret that I may have significantly and negatively impacted that man’s life for the simple act of propositioning me. 

My mother, June Davis Waltz, who would have been 99 last week, if she had lived beyond 85, was raised a Southern Baptist, leading her to occasionally talk about the importance of souls who are laid on one’s life.

As a Christian, I also believe in karma. How we live determines some of the karma in our lives. Good karma. Bad karma. No karma at all.

This made me a champion for civil rights all my life. Even in the conservative elements of my own community, I’ve spoken out publicly in favor of recognizing and accepting same-gender couples. 

Today, as the parent of three young adults, one of whom is married to someone of the same gender, I’d like to think that perhaps my activism and outspokenness became one tiny part of the wave of social change that made it acceptable for them. 

Occasionally, though, we need to remember from whence we came, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots reminds me. I wonder what ever happened to that soldier I reported for hitting on me. And, I’d like to take this occasion to say “I’m sorry” for any pain I may have caused him. 

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