Santa Barbara, Calif. – A new book will tell the story of the nearly two-decade campaign to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The book, titled How We Won: Inside Stories from the 17-Year Struggle to Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is by Aaron Belkin and will be published this spring. Belkin is director of the Palm Center, which was established in 1999.According to Metro Weekly reporter Chris Geidner: “The successful Senate vote happened, first, because of an unmatched – and ultimately successful – public education campaign.” How We Won tells the story of that campaign.
Belkin argues that research necessary for overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell” already existed in 1993, but that it was sitting on a library shelf. The key to the public education campaign, he suggests, was to update the research on a continuous basis, pair each scholarly update with a “human interest” angle so that journalists would report the same key messages again and again, and engage with military audiences in a reasoned conversation about the evidence.
The campaign was not coordinated by a single organization, and he shows that important contributions were made by many groups including Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, Servicemembers United and others. The campaign relied on a number of reinforcing strategies and tools including lawsuits, protests and research studies, all of which were intended to apply pressure via distinct legal and political avenues, and to convey key messages.
He argues that the public education campaign was designed to reinforce three inter-related messages. First, scholars and activists had to help the public understand the costs that discrimination imposes on the military. This was achieved via annual reports about abuses of the policy and studies of the financial costs of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as well as Arabic linguists and other mission-critical specialists fired for being gay.
Second, the unit cohesion rationale was flipped on its head by studies about successful experiences in foreign militaries, where discrimination undermined rather than promoted readiness. This point was reinforced by analysis of the U.S. military’s willful use of gay and lesbian troops during wartime, as well as statements of support from supportive Generals and Admirals.
Third, research was used to make “don’t ask, don’t tell” look absurd. For example, studies revealed the military’s enlistment of convicted felons, including individuals convicted of making terrorist threats, at the same time that it was firing capable gay and lesbian service members. Other examples include a campaign involving the American Psychological Association to shame the military for continuing to classify homosexuality as a mental disorder as late as 2006.
A final empirical chapter is devoted to scholars and activists who engaged in an ongoing dialogue with military audiences via publications in military journals, annual visits to service academies, and conversations with top Pentagon leaders. The aim of such efforts was persuasion as well as forging alliances with insiders who could corrode “don’t ask, don’t tell” from within the military. Such efforts paid off when a West Point cadet who had obtained research support from gay activists received an award for a senior thesis challenging “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Belkin concludes that the public education campaign was not sufficient for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but that the iteration and saturation of the campaign’s messages made it safe for politicians to repeal the law. In particular, the campaign’s key messages formed the backbone of (1) Judge Virginia Phillips’s reasoning in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States as to why “don’t ask, don’t tell” harms the military and fails to advance a legitimate government interest; (2) the Pentagon Working Group’s conclusion that repeal would not pose a significant risk to the forces; and (3) Senator Susan Collins’ and other Senators’ repeated citation of foreign military experiences as proof that repeal could be managed.
Experts give advance praise for How We Won:
- Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America:”Ending the military’s gay ban was the work of a true social movement, and the full story of its ultimate success should be heard far and wide. This book promises to do that. It will focus on the unprecedented, long-term information campaign that, applying lessons from earlier social movements to today’s cacophonous political and media world, brought voice to the legally voiceless, and a measure of justice too long delayed.”
- Ethan Geto, leading gay rights activist: “Belkin skillfully explains the intellectual framework that was the sine qua non to achieve repeal. His exhaustive research, his compelling presentation of the issues, and his relentlessness in using logic to dismantle every claim made by opponents of repeal are a marvel to read.”
- Tobias Wolff, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and leading expert on LGBT legal issues: “The Palm Center has been one of the key players in the public education effort surrounding the military policy since the early years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I can’t think of anyone better situated to tell this important part of the story.”
- Brant Shalikashvili, national security policy consultant: “The work of Aaron Belkin and the Palm Center on DADT repeal should stand not just as a record of the struggle to achieve repeal of the 1993 law banning open service, but the lessons learned should be used as an instruction manual for how to approach many contentious issues that face our nation. Aaron shows us how the combination of vigorous advocacy and tempered reason can bridge the deepest divides and help us achieve rational solutions.”
- Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network: “The Palm Center provided the academic rigor and backbone for an entire movement. What we knew to be a simple matter of social justice, the Palm Center was able to back up with hard data and unflinching analysis. Palm was also instrumental in exposing the insidious effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on forgotten servicemembers: women and people of color.”