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Sweet Nothings


February 15, 2010

Civil rights champion David Mixner on his battle to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” why the February 2nd Congressional hearings were a bust, and how the policy all but guarantees sexual harassment of women soldiers.

mixner300.jpgFor nearly two decades, David Mixner has been working to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal law established in 1993 that forbids “openly” gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the U.S. military. So when the February 2nd Congressional hearing to decide the policy’s future began, nobody was watching closer than the noted civil rights activist and political adviser.

What occurred seemed promising. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supported repealing the policy and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passionately proclaimed, “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” The next day, even Colin Powell, who along with Georgia Senator Sam Nunn led a parade of uniforms outraged at the idea of allowing gays to serve openly seventeen years ago, fully supported Gates’s and Mullen’s new approach. Not surprisingly, many in the gay rights movement were heartened. The Human Rights Campaign called the hearing “a historic step forward in repealing a shameful law that has harmed the military, discharged thousands of talented and patriotic Americans, and prevented thousands more from serving their country.” Aaron Belkin, director of The Palm Center, declared the hearings “a game-changer at the Pentagon.” Mixner, however, was uninspired. As he says in the interview that follows, he and many others have waited a long time to hear Gates’s and Mullen’s public comments, “But it’s important to know the difference between whispering sweet nothings in our ear, and substance. I felt like I got the dirty talk but not the lovemaking.”

Many at the hearings probably remember Mixner best in a single photo: one of a heavyset man in a business suit chained to the White House fence, along with former military officers, in July 1993. The headline attached to the photo: “Former Clinton Adviser Arrested in Protest of Policy.” If that seems like an odd place for a political adviser on gay issues—even one who’d worked with Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones to defeat the anti-gay “Briggs Initiative” in 1978 long before delivering gay donors to candidates like Bill Clinton—there’s a reason. Mixner cut his activist teeth fighting the Vietnam War, working for insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy (beaten at the 1968 Chicago National Convention), and helping organize the millions-strong demonstrations for a Vietnam Moratorium in 1969. Eight years later, shortly after coming out of the closet, Mixner met former Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, the very first person to fight his discharge for homosexuality in federal court, who told Mixner about the harassment, secrecy, and danger suffered by gays in uniform.

Ever since, equal treatment for gays in the military has been a passion of Mixner’s, a fact he never fails to call “ironic, since I’m a pacifist.” A pacifist, no less, who in 1992 reassured nervous Democrats that his old friend Bill Clinton wasn’t really anti-war. When Clinton was nominated, Mixner introduced him to many of the gay veterans he’d met over the years since working with Matlovich, and Clinton pledged to lift the ban. The result, when Sam Nunn and Colin Powell were done with it, was the current policy, which has resulted in about the same number of involuntary gay discharges as its predecessor.

A few days after the hearing, I spoke with Mixner, author of Stranger Among Friends and Brave Journeys: Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage, about being a pacifist who takes soldiers seriously, and whether this week really is a “game-changer” or another case of deja vu all over again.

—Chris Lombardi for Guernica

Listen, the president can issue a stop-loss order today. He’s commander in chief: he could keep them from being dismissed today.

Guernica: I just re-read your statement in 1993, just before you got arrested: “It was the president’s own words and his vision that inspired us to work harder than ever for his election. It was he who looked us in the eye and said, ‘trust me’; that he understood our struggle, and that he would be the vehicle to our freedom. Quite simply, the president has failed to keep his promise.” Does this feel like a flashback to seventeen years ago? What’s your initial gut response to Tuesday’s hearings?

David Mixner: Who would not want to hear the words that were spoken by Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Mullen? We’ve waited for a long time to hear those words. But it’s important to know the difference between whispering sweet nothings in our ear, and substance. I felt like I got the dirty talk but not the lovemaking.

They’ve left the impression—especially with the press, which is dangerous—that DADT is over. But it’s not, and this is actually more of a delay than many of us were anticipating. We were told that this would be the year it would be gone, it would be in the 1993 appropriations bill, that we should all just be patient because they had this grand plan.

Now, there’s going to be this study, which is a piece of crap, and then if the report is good—if—they want a year to implement that. So that’s two years, maybe longer. But remember: this takes an act of Congress. And we may not even control the Senate by 2011. That means John McCain would be head of the Armed Forces Committee. Why would we put ourselves in a politically difficult situation, and maybe a precarious situation. And they want to wait two years?

Guernica: So you’re unconvinced by writers, like Chris Beam at Slate, who say this is the only way to get the ban lifted effectively.

David Mixner: Listen, the president can issue a stop-loss order today. They happen all the time. Say we’re fighting two wars, we need all our people, all discharges for homosexuality suspended until further notice. He’s commander in chief: he could keep them from being dismissed today.

If Obama had to live by (DADT) regulations, he couldn’t. He couldn’t mention Michelle, the girls. She couldn’t live at the White House, she would get no benefits, and he couldn’t have pictures of them at his desk.

Guernica: Usually, I’m on the side of those opposing stop-loss orders, which often stop discharges for hardship, or for conscientious objectors who realize they can’t stand holding a weapon another minute. But it’s intriguing to think of it as a tool for justice.

David Mixner : The people in uniform I talk to, they just want to serve without fear. For years now, gays and lesbians who are serving their country heroically in two wars—and even as a pacifist, I can’t deny their heroics—cannot say who they are. For women it is particularly brutal: many women are targeted for investigation under DADT, including straight women, because they refused the advances of a male soldier. The soldier then tells the command she must be gay, otherwise she wouldn’t have refused him. The policy is a tool of sexual harassment; I don’t know if people understand that.

Even barring that kind of harassment, gay or lesbian servicemembers cannot get many of the benefits. They can’t get family leave. They can’t have base housing. If they mention a loved one, they might be discharged, at the discretion of the commander. If Obama had to live by those regulations, he couldn’t do it. The moment he left his family at the White House he couldn’t mention Michelle, he couldn’t mention the girls. She couldn’t live at the White House, she would get no benefits, and he couldn’t even have pictures of them at his desk. He can’t live that way. Why the hell does he think we can?

Guernica: When I heard about the study Gates said he wants to conduct, I thought about all the studies that came before, dating at least back to that 1957 Navy study they kept secret for twenty years because it could see no problem with gays serving openly.

David Mixner: What are they going to study now? Our patriotism? Our morality? [Are] they going to put our democratic rights to a poll in the military? It’s not as if we’re not there: we’re there already! It’s a question—as Mullen said—of integrity. And of decency.

Guernica: When you say “we’re there now,” meaning gays, you sound a little like a veteran, instead of a veteran pacifist. How do you define that word “pacifist”? In relation to your own growing up and more generally?

David Mixner: For me, being a pacifist meant more than an absence of war in the world or a political ideology. It meant a way of life. Living on a daily basis without injecting any violence or anger into the world either in words or actions. Of course, I have lived that imperfectly but have done my best.

Guernica: In the Eugene McCarthy campaign, did you ever meet the Vietnam veterans who had become volunteers for McCarthy? What was your take on veterans then?

David Mixner: Yes, I did. I mostly interacted with John Kerry and Bill Chickering, both decorated war vets who ended up opposing the war. Like all veterans that come back from any war, there are a range of emotions depending on the person, their experience, and the horror of that war. No one came back not affected: that is war.

Guernica: Has John Kerry remained an ally?

David Mixner: Phenomenal ally. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act on the Senate floor, he voted against DADT, he’s got one of the best voting records on gay and lesbian issues of any Senator that currently serves, now that Senator Kennedy has left us.

Guernica: You were both famous as fighters for peace. What are your thoughts, now, on your pacifism’s relationship to the gays in the military issue?

David Mixner: When I took up the cause of the rights of members of the LGBT community to serve in the military, I had to pause and reflect. Then it became clear to me that this was about individual choice and I had no right to insist my values supplant their own. I would still work against war in any circumstance but could not dictate to those who wish to serve how they must react. For many Americans, the military is the only way to get a decent education. It is a very complicated situation for me and how ironic that this pacifist has become a champion for the rights of LGBT people to serve. [laughs]

I don’t believe in war, I don’t believe in militaries. But I also know that the military is the greatest education system in the world. I come from a very poor family, so I know—for many people it’s the only way to better themselves.

Guernica: That argument always struck me as kind of a liberal cop-out. What about creating alternatives to the military for young people: scholarships, challenging jobs with a future? Why should the military be the “only” option for some people?

David Mixner: I actually agree that there need to be more of those alternatives. But right now, it’s kind of like women’s right to choose: I don’t believe dogmatic people should limit people’s options, or stop them from making their own choices, out of those available to them, for moving forward in their lives and serving our country.

I do hope that, outside of this issue, my work for peace inspires others not to join the military in the first place.

Guernica: Talk to me about Leonard Matlovich, who really jump-started you on this path. You met him three years after he was on the cover of Time, when his lawyer, Frank Kameny, was calling his case the next Brown vs. Board of Education.

David Mixner: I met him soon after I came out, and we became very close. It was Leonard who first taught me what I’ve been learning ever since, and thinking about, about choice and service and life in the military. He was a very important figure who is now underrated.

After I was arrested, the Advocate ran a story: “David Mixner: Friend of Nobody.”

Guernica: What would you choose as turning points on this issue, post-Matlovich? Divide into before and after DADT.

David Mixner: The legal cases that followed his—especially Keith Meinhold, Margarethe Cammermeyer, and Joseph Steffan—had a particularly large impact on the public. There were others that added to that momentum, but those cases stand out. Then Clinton’s campaign pledges, including his pledge that he was going to lift the ban in his transition process; Sam Nunn taking Clinton on a tour of the U.S.S. Roosevelt (to show Clinton the close quarters heterosexual servicemembers would be forced to endure); the 1993 March on Washington, which highlighted the issue; Barney Frank giving in to DADT and making the policy seem good.

After? The arrests at the White House; the rapid rise of dismissals and other failures of the policy; other major powers lift their bans to little effect; Gore and then Kerry coming out against DADT in their campaigns; the dismissal of the linguists; Clinton comes out against DADT; Obama elected and fails to deliver in his first year.

Guernica: Now, since we’re back where we were seventeen years ago, do we need protests like the ones where you were arrested in 1993?

David Mixner: We can never let up until it changes.

Guernica: The photo of the protests we usually see is of you alone.

David Mixner: That’s probably because I was a personal friend of Clinton’s.

Guernica: Are you still?

David Mixner: I guess. We don’t speak, but I guess if I saw him we’d be civil.

In that demonstration, when I was arrested, there were only about twenty of us. Back then, there was very little support for us on the military issue. They begged us to be patient, told us that the President needed to do this. Our leaders in the gay and lesbian community begged us. And after I was arrested, the Advocate ran a story: “David Mixner: Friend of Nobody.”

G

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One comment for Sweet Nothings

  1. Comment by Michael @! LeonardMatlovich.com on February 15, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Thank you for this interview with David, one of the few remaining voices in the gay community still speaking Truth to Power rather than having being coopted by promises of access to it. Our mutual friend Leonard Matlovich would be so proud that David is still doing that. And not just about the military ban. He and Leonard were arrested, along with others, in front of the White House in 1987 protesting Reagan’s passive genocide of gays by AIDS. I will always be grateful to David for all of these things, plus the fact that, just a few weeks out of intensive care last October, he came by wheel chair to both memorialize Leonard and protest the continuing ban. David is, as another speaker that day, discharged Navy Top Gun Tracy Thorne-Begland said, continuing to carry the banner for gay servicemembers more than 20 years after Leonard no longer could. Carry it on! Carry it on!

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