Bil Browning

David Mixner: An Oral History of DADT

Filed By Bil Browning | July 19, 2010 8:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Clinton Administration, David Mixner, Don't Ask Don't Tell, gays in the military, oral history, Rahm Emanuel

When I was in New York City in early March, fellow contributor Phil Reese and I met veteran activist David Mixner at his favorite restaurant for brunch. David was incredibly generous with his time and after we ate I broke out the video camera for an exclusive oral history of Mixner's role in the LGBT movement.

David-Mixner.jpgIn this installment, Mixner talks about the origins of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The Clinton administration announced the DADT policy 17 years go today on July 19, 1993; two weeks later Mixner was arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence.

As the Clinton campaign's top gay adviser, Mixner had unparalleled access to the events surrounding then-candidate Clinton's support for removing any obstacle to service and the subsequent capitulation that led to the disastrous DADT policy. Mixner isn't shy about naming names in this bit of history from the LGBT movement either; some of them might surprise you.

True to form, Mixner talks bluntly and without reservation about DADT, the Clinton administration's revenge for his protest, and how some familiar Democratic faces are giving as an opportunity for failure once again. Check out the video after the jump.

If anyone is willing to write up a transcript, I'd be happy to post it as an update for other Projectors who can't watch video!

David Mixner was incredibly generous with his time and spent a couple hours with us talking about the past and his role at the time. We'll have more video from that day soon, but until then you can check out his blog.

Transcript of Part 1 (courtesy of Projector Shayna- thanks!):

The origins of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was really because of Bill Clinton. In 1992, I was part of a group called ANGLE in Los Angeles. And when Bill Clinton decided to run for President, most of the community including most of the people at HRC was supporting a candidate named Paul Songus from Massachusetts. ANGLE was the first LGBT group to endorse Clinton and he was frantic to get our endorsement and before we would endorse him, we outlined some positions he had to be for. ENDA was of course one of the top priorities back then and repeal of the ban in the military. He gave a speech May 13, 1992 at the Hollywood Palace and very publicly, on his own with no one twisting his arm or jumping up and down on his head, came out and said he would issue an executive order repealing the ban on gays and lesbians in the military.

It became a plank in his campaign and actually part of the platform at the Democratic Convention in 1992 in New York. He never hesitated on the campaign, he repeated it in front of straight audiences, in front of gay audiences ... and it was one of the reasons that the 1992 convention actually became almost the convention that the LGBT community came of age politically. We were totally visible in that convention for the first time ... Roberta Achtenberg, Bob Hattoy and for the first time ever a presidential nominee using the word gay in an acceptance speech.

Then toward the end of the campaign, it was pretty clear that Bill Clinton had a very good chance of winning and I flew to Little Rock to meet with the people who were going to transition because I was concerned .... I knew that the reality of implementing the program on gays and lesbians was going to be more difficult than just taking a campaign stance. And so I went down and visited with a guy named David Stern, Mickey Cantor, George Stephanopoulos, Rahm Emanuel, Eli Segal who was one of the deputies, Harold Ickes, all the top level members of the campaign saying we really need a very sophisticated transition on gay and lesbian issues because the reality .. and the President has to be prepared for this. The problem was the last two weeks of the campaign, everybody in the campaign was jockeying for their position and their job afterwards. David Wilhelm became head of the Democratic Party, and now one wanted to touch the gay issue even though Clinton's victory was in good part because of the LGBT vote and it's supporters. I think Bill Schneider of CNN said one out of every seven votes that Bill Clinton received in that election was because of his stance on these issues ...... and no one wanted to touch this issue. And I said you don't understand, you've got to be prepared. The community has expectations after working so hard. I mean, we had many volunteers in West Hollywood they were bussing them out to San xxxx [3:36] I mean never have I seen the community respond until except maybe this past election of Obama and Mrs. Clinton .. Senator Clinton. No one wanted to touch it.

The President got elected. President Clinton got elected. Again I made an effort. I said the Keith Meinhold decision is coming down and I said you've got to brief the President on this so that he ... you know, the President-Elect ... because they're going to ask him about that. Again, no one wanted to touch the issue, no one wanted to be in charge of the "gay desk" you know. They thought it was a career buster. Everyone forgets that. And what happened is, the President held his first press conference as President-Elect. I'm not sure of the date but it was his very first one ... Well, as history has a strange way of doing things, the Meinhold Decision came down just before that press conference. No one prepared him and so what happened is, he got up in front of the press conference and of course the question came up about the Minehold Decision from the federal court ... just for those that don't remember, sayng gays has a right to serve in the military ... Keith Meinhold, a very brave ... there was that whole group: Greta Cammermyer, Joe Stephen , Keith Meinhold, Tracy Thorn, Zoey Dunning, Jose Zenicka ... all of these people who courageously came out in the military during that period in large part because of Clinton's promises and put their careers on the line for us

Clinton went into the press conference, no preparation, no briefing and said what he said through the whole campaign: Yes, I plan to issue an executive order banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. And I had begged them to have a strategy before they announced it. My preference quite honestly, and what I briefed them when I went to Little Rock was to do it on Inauguration Day. Jimmy Carter when he was elected issued an amnesty for Vietnam deserters and people who went to Canada and he signed it on election [sic] day and it became a page three story on the Inauguration and Clinton should have done the abortion and all the gay rights ... all of that on Inauguration Day and though it would have gotten coverage, it would have been overshadowed by the Inauguration itself and that was my advice and what I was strongly urging and to keep it quiet until then. Not even to discuss it. Just do it.

Well, the next day the front page banner headlines of The New York Times after the press conference, "Clinton Issues Executive Order About Gays in the Military". No one was prepared, no one could back it up in the campaign, there was this huge vacuum, we hadn't even had a chance as a community to get used to having power let alone being ready to have power. What happened after that transition committee, which was a very wise thing, I removed myself from the transition because I believed it should be our national organizations, and William Rayborn and Tim McFeeley of HRC created a coalition of all the organizations...I think, I'm trying to remember who was head of National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce ... NAME [7:04] ... and they created this transition committee which worked brilliantly. It cleared appointments and issues, and I removed myself except when they asked me to call my friends with inside the campaign and to lobby on something because I believed it should be a community effort and not something where it became a power source for me where people had to go through. And so, there was an institution that people went through to get their appointments, not through me. And whenever they came to me I said we have a committee set up and that's it. I will write you a letter of reference but that, you know ... And that's the way it should be.

All hell broke lose. The Clinton people panicked. Again, no one wanted to deal with the gay issue. No one wanted to touch it, even after all this broke out. No strategy came up in this administration. They just panicked. And so as a result, they did nothing for the next month or so and let the anti forces ..... He never called in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he never briefed Colin Powell, he never said this is my policy and you're going to change it no matter what, I'm Commander in Chief. All he had to do was call them in once hell broke out and say I'm your new Commander in Chief. This is gonna be part of like what Harry Truman did. Any of you have a problem you can submit your resignation now. Do you know what? Not one military commander or general or admiral would have given up their private car, their private houses, their butlers, their private jets for gays. I can promise you that. No one of them would have resigned. That's all he had to do. But instead, he just let it sit there. I mean, Colin Powell has said very clearly, if we had had direction from the President it would have been a different story but he left us hanging.

Transcript of Part 2 (courtesy of Projector Shayna- thanks!):

On Inauguration Day, George Stephanopoulos called me and said we think we need more time and we need about six months to build support for this thing. And the President asked me to call you. And I said, if you promise that at the end of the six months you'll repeal, of course we'll support you and give you more time; whatever you need. Again, I did not want it to become a personal thing so I turned to Geffin and Tom Stoddard and Hillary Rosen who held a meeting in the home of Bob Shromp and Mary Louise Oates in Georgetown and I absented myself from it because I was very concerned about looking like I was seeking power cause I didn't want it quite honestly. I didn't even go after an appointment. It's against my politics; its not how I operate.

They formed a Campaign for Military Service headed by Tom Stoddard and Fred Hochberg was involved and all sorts of people were involved, and for six months Tom Stoddard put together one of the most massive campaigns in the history of our community, funded by David Geffin, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build public support. Ads, grass roots organizations - anything you can imagine and I was on the advisory board and whenever they asked me to do something, I did it. For example, when Clinton proposed perhaps we needed segregated barracks, Tom asked me to raise hell separate from the Campaign for Military Service and I went on Nightline and said unacceptable. Segregation is not acceptable. Separate but equal is not acce .... but that was my role and I was willing to take that heat. But we had a massive campaign. There is this mythology that we didn't do anything to support Clinton. Nothing could be further from the truth and anyone who knows Tom Stoddard who is no longer with us knows he is perhaps one of the greatest men of integrity and dignity ever to come out of this community, loved by everyone which is why he .... and he was dying of AIDS when he came aboard. And he put together a spectacular organization. And his organization was working night and day all over the country - congressional districts - raising money, very well financed by people like Geffin and Dillar - people like that, cause the President had asked him to finance it. You know, this was at the request of the President that this was formed.

In June, [name] got a call at the White House or anything else, Barney Frank who never called any of us, got up and said he was supporting "Don't Ask Don't Tell " and that's what the president was going to do. Not one of us had been contacted; Tom wasn't called, none of us involved with the campaign was called, and over night everything we had worked with in that organization cause Barney did it was undercut and done. We tried to salvage it, Tom did, others did, we kept it alive and in July, the President without calling one leader, went before military leaders and announced a policy of "Don't Ask Don't Tell". And that's what happened.

Tim McFeeley of HRC and group got arrested a week afterward and then the week after Tim McFeeley, twenty of us from ANGLE in California got arresred and that's when I chained myself to the White House fence. Overnight, Rahm Emanuel announce in the Wall Street Journal that I was persona non grata at the White House, they cancelled every one of my clients, and I was not able to work or bring in income for four years ... literally four years. I was blacklisted. I think there's a lot of problems with the Obama boy has but let me say this. I think Rahm Emanuel is basically governing as if it was 1992 and he is gun shy and he thinks the wisdom that he brings is the lessons they learned in 1992 and one of the lessons they believe they learned in 1992 - don't touch the gay community early. That was a mistake. Well, the mistake wasn't that we got involved with the gay issues early; the mistake was involved how badly Clinton handled it because no one wanted to touch this issue; no one wanted the gay desk. They finally shrugged it onto to some nobody in the Pentagon.

So he didn't learn the lesson about being prepared. He just said that we were toxic and I think we have enabled them to believe that. I think there's people out there who think we are at fault for what happened with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and far from it, there were many of us warning them, sounding alarms, meeting with them, building organizations to support them, and they fucked us. And I think Rahm has brought that attitude into the White House on a lot of issues - healthcare, gays and lesbians .... and hey, it's not 1992; it's eighteen years later. It's a different world. We're a different ..... we even communicate differently ... through the internet, and through IPhones, and IPods, and I don't know what the hell you all call it. It's not 1992. The world has changed dramatically since then but they're operating as if it's 1992. So .. I think he is a problem but on a number of issues, not just ours.

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Painful to watch.

Mixner confirms how ineffective it is to "chain your self to the White House fence," but he thankfully reminds people "it's not 1992." He should have told Dan Choi.

I'm glad this video was made. It clearly demonstrates how necessary it is for our entire community to let go of the past, including ineffective tactics, "insider "b.s." and figure out how to actually win.

This November it is likely to feel a lot like 1994 - we will have a second chance - this time I hope we get it right. This time, I hope we decide to change minds instead of continuing to believe that politics will save us. Mixner's rambling proves it won't.

We have to trust each other, not political whores.

Changing minds is at the heart of politics. Lobbying and campaigns are about persuasion. If you rule out politics and direct action, how do you propose to effect change?

By changing minds. Our neighbors, our friends, co-workers and even strangers. is start.

Until we understand that we need to create our equality, we'll waste more time and energy thinking politics will save us.

Changing minds has always been part of what we do. That's what activism is changing people's minds. Perhaps you are just projecting your own guilt for not having done the whole changing minds thing before.

How many minds have we changed?

Besides, what campaigns have sought to enroll people in our struggle and ask them to stand with us? Name them.

Aside from every gay rights organization ever? What do you think PFLAG is?

And oh look, what are all those organizations at the bottom?

If you haven't been paying attention to the gay rights movement, which is obvious, then you can't really tell us what we haven't done can you?

How many of the 20 million members of the LGBT community are participating in those three campaigns?

Less than 100,000.

So, no - we are not engaging in campaigns to change minds. We're playing "politics." HRC wastes $50 million a year lobbying. Or we're engaging in childish publicity stunts thinking demanding works. Neither of those tactics are effective.

The only thing that actually works is changing minds. We're not doing that.

Wow, thats what you got from this?
I think David Mixner is a hero. If only we had a hundred of him. Things might be different by now.
Thank You Mr. Mixner

I'm totally disappointed! When I saw the headline 'An Oral History of DADT,' I was like, whoa, cool, they're playing porn clips over on Bilerico now!! That was a porn movie, right? No?

Very good to know the details of what was happening from close to the inside. The trouble is that there seems to have been more than one inside. I never was a fan of Clinton either plumbing model that it came in. Glad to know that my first impressions were correct and they are not friends of ours.

This was the summer I came out. I remember because when school started back up (I was a junior in high school) my social studies teacher sprung a class debate on the topic. And as she went around the room, it became clear that I was going to be the only one on the pro-gay side.

Of course, I was a teenager and didn't know the details. I had no idea how to debate gay issues as a gay person. And it was a very painful way to learn. In some weird way, I relive that debate with every new one I encounter.

It's interesting that Mixner's lesson is you have to be prepared...have a strategy. That's exactly the lesson I got out of the of DADT too.

Speaking of "changing minds" there will be a new Poll released today regarding SSM in CA:

"Although a majority of California voters say they support same-sex marriage, that endorsement is as tenuous as it was two years ago when voters told pollsters that they approved of the idea but still voted to ban the marriages.

A Field Poll scheduled to be released today shows little has changed since May 2008, when 51 percent of voters said they supported same-sex marriage, only to ban it by approving Proposition 8 six months later."

Read more:

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 24, 2010 7:38 PM

It's very clear why we lost in 2000 and 2008 and it has little to do with the 'Bradley Effect' applied to the question of same sex marriage.

The Field Poll is far and away the most consistly accurate poll about Califonaia politics. It showed us winning until the "Obama Effect' torpoedoed our chances. On MTV and at bbf's Rick Warrens bigotfest he bellowed his opposition to same sex marriage - "gawd's inteh mix". At the same time he whispered a tactical opposition to Prop 8, calling it 'unnecessary' because of DOMA.

While HRC and EQCA were busy kowtowing to the Democrats and Obama Yes on 8 grabbed "gawd's in the mix" and ran with it using it in a huge last minute blitz peppering radio and televison and the print media higlighting what would turn out to be the first of Obama's many betrayals of his 'fierce' advocacy.

Suddenly the polls reversed and we lost. It wasn't the African American vote and it wasn't the Bradly Effect. It was the eurocentic approach of Democrat frong groups like HRC and EQCA and it was most of all the Obama's "gawd's in teh mix" which galvanized the bigot vote.

We have changed a lot of minds in 17 years. With 70% of people now supporting the repeal of's a huge difference. One that cannot be measured in a short 2 year time span. The reality is opinions on social justice issues just do not change that rapidly. But they do change.

Perhaps some just lack the experience to know just how long it takes to change people's minds.

Those polls reflect the changing cultural conversation which is a result of many factors, including the decline of religion and alot of old people dying, but as a Movement we have not engaged in changing minds. Look at the new Poll today from CA - no change in the last two years. None.

Terry Leftgoff | July 25, 2010 1:57 AM

"Look at the new Poll today from CA - no change in the last two years. None."

I share the frustration of our loss. But you have misunderstood polling in California.

In fact, our support has begun to rebound after Prop 8. Our numbers were worse for the corrosive effect of the Prop 8 campaign. There was a peak of opposition that has deflated.

A poll is a snapshot of something in motion. You have missed some of the motion.

There are, in fact, a number of efforts in California and in many other states to conduct personal persuasion campaigns since Prop 8 passed. The polls actually demonstrates they have begun to have some limited effect at returning our support to pre-Prop 8 levels.

The challenge we face is that our slight majority support is shallow and can be flipped during a nasty campaign full of scare tactics, particularly the old rubrics about children.

We need a build a larger margin of support, and neutralize the scare messages by taking the offensive before they hit rather than running defensive campaigns.

Instead of throwing money into lobbying politicians we should be lobbying people.When I was back east I saw a TV commercial about treating lgbt people better I can't remember the specifics.But what I can remember is how of guard it caught me.I had never seen a pro lgbt commercial.We are bombarded with silent anti lgbt rhetoric in commercials,and on TV shows.Then we are bombarded with out right accusations of having an agenda openly on conservative radio and TV.I would love to see a my agenda campaign at both the local and national level.Use local and national advertising and lgbt and straight people to show a common bond.They could cover many different scenario's I'm thinking the more the better.One could deal with joining the military:My agenda is to serve my country.Another:My agenda is to find gainful employment and own a house.Or My agenda is to find the perfect partner.My agenda is to be able to walk down the street and feel safe.My agenda is to be loved for who I am not who others think I should be.My agenda is to believe in god as I choose without imposing it on others.The key to prevailing in this is to provide people the opportunity to change their opinions without leaving them feeling like they were forced to.Show them the way.

What a great comment. Thank-you Amy.

We have never re-branded what people perceive "gay" to mean. I'm tired of the "pity-Ads" that run during campaigns. We should make gay "cool." We are, in fact, the most clever and passionate people in the world. I like your ideas.

Thanks for the positive response to my idea Andrew.Let me ask you a question if you could choose between one of two things which would you choose?
1) To be seen as cool simply because your gay
2) To be seen as cool with being gay as just being an accepted part of who you are.
The first one implies an agenda
The second one says I just want to be cool gay is just part of who I am.
Heres what I think: My agenda is to be cool because when you add up all the parts of what makes me who I am they equal cool.

I would agree with both. We have been branded for centuries as being wrong, sinful and defective. That has harmed us and created most of our discrimination. We need to counter that misinformation (belief) and re-brand ourselves - something we've never done.

I will revise my comment to suggest we should re-brand "gay" as "cool and comfortable." Even if that is our "agenda," it is also true.

I don't seek acceptance, I seek understanding. I know that when people understand us, they appreciate us and usually adore us. Okay, most of us. By the end of the year you will see tv commercials that cast the LGBT community in a different light - not as victims, but as creative, compassionate, fun and wonderful (cool and comfortable) people. This will be the first time in the history of our movement that we took control of the messaging. We will define who we are, instead of being defined devalued by religious bigotry.

I am hopeful about a transformation that will be completed soon. It's been a long, difficult struggle - it's time to win, it's time to finish.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 24, 2010 7:50 PM


This fill's in a lot of missing data about the Democrats betrayals.

It confirms yet another betrayal by Quisling Frank. He's a loathsome turncoat. Later, when he tries to rehabilitate himself he'll get the same reaction that Bill Clinton, Laura Bush and Roy Ashburn got. "I smell ya... I wouldn't wanna be ya."

Terry Leftgoff | July 26, 2010 4:11 AM

Thank you David for continuing to speak truth to power.

David's comments about how Rahm Emanuel has transported the lessons of failure from the 1992 Clinton Administration to the present day Obama Administration is revealing.

If true, this is the real explanation LGBT issues have been shoved into a freezer. Ordinarily, the West Wing sets and propels a legislative agenda.

What we are seeing is that some members of Congress have had to act and pull our issues out of the freezer despite the reticence and mixed signals from the White House.

The liberal community should be demanding that Obama shake up his staff. It would benefit this administration and Democratic prospects.