Skip to Content

ComNet16: Sean Gibbons in Conversation with Professor Aaron Belkin

ComNet16 Keynote

Aaron Belkin is a scholar, author, and activist. Since 1999, he has served as founding director of the Palm Center, which the Advocate named as one of the most effective gay rights organizations in the nation. Belkin is one of the chief architects behind the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

At ComNet16, The Communications Network CEO Sean Gibbons talked with Belkin about what it takes to successfully use communications to achieve a long-term goal, how to change deeply-held beliefs using data and messaging, and more.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.

Watch

Transcript

Sean Gibbons

About a year and a half ago, the board gathered, and there we all are, handsome bunch. One of the things on our agenda was to figure out where to take the conference this year. Those of you who know the network know that the conference moves. In 2014, we were in Philly. Last year, we were in San Diego. Yeah, that was fun, but this will be better. For 2016, the question was, “Where do we bring the conference?” It was going to come to the central part of the United States. Of course, there’s lots of really wonderful American cities that we could have brought the conference to, but the board quickly zeroed in on Detroit.

Now, as you know, and I hope you’ve seen for yourself, it’s an incredible city, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is a city that’s had some tough times lately. We’re going to hear a little bit more about that later today, but it’s on the comeback. It’s a center of innovation and creativity. It was recently named the UNESCO City of Design, the only one in the whole country that’s gotten that designation. If you’ve been out, and I know a number of you have hit the restaurants, it’s a pretty incredible food scene as well. There’s a lot happening here.

The board decided unanimously, “Let’s come to Detroit,” but, again, because of some of the stories that have come out of this city, there was some question, reasonable question. Would people come? Here’s where I get to thank you, because you’re here. This is the largest conference we have ever had, so that’s a big deal. More people came to Detroit than to San Diego, to Philadelphia, to New Orleans. You showed up, and my guess is it’s for the exact same reason that the board chose to come here, because it was the right thing to do, because you want to be part of the solution, because you want to be part of the Detroit comeback story. Thank you very, very, very much.

This is something else we share in common. I think this is something we all believe. I think this is something we share in common. Does anybody … I’m going to call you out. Anybody not think this is true? I know this in my bones. These are some of the issues that we work on. These are some of the issues the organizations that we serve work towards, and I think we all know that without smart, strategic communications, none of this will happen. It’s just that simple, particularly why.

Here’s some evidence, though. I think you may have seen this already. It’s in the conference program, in the little note I sent to you. This has been blowing my mind for weeks. This is a study that Nielsen does every year, and I look at this and I see this. It’s the information age in a chart. This traces, over the last three years, the amount of ideas and information, or media, that people are consuming on a daily basis. The average American adult has, in this new information age, started to consume more and more and more information each and every year, nine hours and 32 minutes, I think it says, then nine hours and 39 minutes.

But last year … and this is not statistically significant. This is astounding. It went from nine hours and 39 minutes of reading books, listening to the radio, watching Game of Thrones, hanging out on Facebook and apparently Pokémon GO, to 10 hours and 39 minutes. Each of you, on average, are consuming 10 hours and 39 minutes of information and ideas a day. That begs a lot of questions, and those are questions we’re going to ask, and we may not answer them, but we’re going to start to ask and dig into them over the course of the next couple of days.

I will tell you this, that is absolutely amazing. If you heard this from your mom, my mom used to say this all the time, you are what you eat, we’re consuming a lot. The ideas that we care about, the issues that we care about that we want to see happen, the kinds of things that Aaron has spent his career working towards, it’s about finding a way into that diet. That’s an enormous challenge, an enormous, enormous challenge. That is a boulder that you are going to need to push up the hill, the boulder that’s in the road that Aaron talks about.

We’re going to get to this in one quick second. I do want to acknowledge just … As my friend Andrew says, “It’s not an opportunity. It’s a necessity,” but I want to acknowledge one individual. I didn’t see him walk in, but I think you’re here. Dr. Jones, are you with us? There you are, Sir. If you were with us in San Diego … I’m going to run off stage real quick. If you were with us in San Diego, Sir, this is Dr. Clarence B. Jones. You know who this is, but I know a number of you weren’t.

This gentleman was the counsel and draft speech writer for Dr. Martin Luther King. He took the letter from the Birmingham Jail out of the Birmingham Jail. He helped to draft the “Dream” speech. The first seven paragraphs, the promissory note, the one that Pope Francis quotes, the one that Barack Obama quotes often, those are his words, word for word spoken by Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He was the attorney to James Baldwin. He is an American hero. He is a lion of the civil rights movement, and he is with us for the next couple of days. This is a national treasure. I hope you take the time to take a few minutes and drink in from his greatness.

Aaron Belkin

I have been around conferences for 30 years, including being a conference planner. I have never seen a better run operation than this, from the moment last year’s conference ended, and it is such an honor to be here with you.

Oh, thank you.

Seriously, and to learn from the people who are here. Thank you.

My pleasure. I’ve got to tell you, it’s these guys and Maggie and Tristan and Emma, so big thanks to them. Why don’t we start … Is the mic still going? Yeah. Why don’t we go ahead and start with the past? 1992, Bill Clinton is running for president. He makes a promise. Do you want to take us back and just dial everybody into the history?

Sure. The military has been firing gay people since 1778, when George Washington drummed a soldier out of Valley Forge for sodomy, and President Clinton, Candidate Clinton, said he would change that. As president, that’s the first thing he tried to do, to get The Pentagon to lift its ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and he failed. An overwhelming coalition formed against him and managed to pass a law in Congress called “don’t ask, don’t tell” that required the military to fire anyone who was discovered to be gay. That was the problem.

This was 1993?

Yeah. It was literally right out of the gates, when his presidency started, when he came into office in January ’93, and then the regulations and laws get put in place at the end of ’93 and the beginning of ’94.

Got you. To justify this policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was considered or sold as a political compromise, the RAND Corporation came in. Tell me a little bit about what their role was. They’re a think tank based in Los Angeles, does a lot of work around the world, some really great work, but in this case …

This was what made “don’t ask, don’t tell” an interesting phenomenon from a communications perspective, was because there was a dual structure behind it, in terms of holding it in place. I think of two pillars that propped it up. The real reason for discrimination was that the generals and admirals didn’t like gay people, and you can call that intolerance or homophobia or whatever you want, and there’s lots of evidence to show that that was the case. But even though it was still a homophobic era in American culture, it would not have been permissible for the generals and admirals to go to Congress and say, “We can’t allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, because we don’t like them.”

They made up a phony rhetoric. You could think of it as a military effectiveness conversation or the unit cohesion conversation, and what they said was that, “Well, we like gays and lesbians as people, but the reason we can’t allow them to serve in the military is because they harm the military. They shatter unit cohesion. They shatter readiness and effectiveness, and that’s the reason why we have to discriminate.” The social scientists, the scholars knew from the outset that that second set of justifications, that military effectiveness pillar, was, to be frank, a lie.

Even the military’s own research, as you mentioned, the RAND Corporation, which was an Air Force-created think tank, had been showing for years that gays and lesbians are great service members and don’t undermine the military at all. But it’s very different for scholars to know something than for members of Congress and journalists and generals and admirals to know it. That was the problem we had to figure out, whether to go after the homophobia or the phony rhetoric.

There were a lot of folks at the outset, folks in the LGBT community and allies, who looked at this policy and, of course, were horrified, but many people had a different … I mean, maybe if you could just explain what were some of the different strategies were brought to bear, and you did something quite different, and you can explain what that was.

Yeah. I should say communications was only one piece of the strategic puzzle. The repeal required groups to work on litigation and lobbying and grass roots organizing. We’re just talking about the public education piece, but from the point of view of communications, the groups were following George Lakoff’s advice, even though it was before George Lakoff had written Don’t Think Like An Elephant. The community, the LGBT community, had come up with its own frame, because we didn’t like the military’s frame about gays and lesbians hurt the military. We decided, the groups decided, to use a fairness frame and a democracy frame, and their argument was that “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromised American citizenship and integrity and fairness.

And that didn’t work?

I came onto the scene, and I thought that was a strategy that was bound to fail, and perhaps the best illustration of that is when Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat.

Do you want to just explain this? Many people probably don’t remember the story.

Yeah. This was a gay soldier who was beaten to death with a baseball bat at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and there was two weeks of above-the-fold New York Times coverage of this. Towards the end of this conversation, the former commandant of the Marine Corps published an op-ed in The New York Times and he said, “Really sorry about the beating to death with a baseball bat. We get that discrimination is unfair, but as sad as it is to be unfair and undemocratic, the lives of our troops are more important than fairness, and because gays and lesbians undermine unit cohesion, we have to keep discrimination, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in place.” In other words, the unit cohesion rationale, the military effectiveness set of arguments, the phony rhetoric … I’ll refer to them as lies. The phony rhetoric was used as a bludgeon to keep the LGBT community in its place. That rhetoric would always trump rhetoric about-

No pun intended.

I will not mention the presidential campaign in the conversation, unless so called on. That set of rhetoric of discourses was always going to win out over the democracy argument, even though it was phony. To my mind, getting rid of that military effectiveness argument in the minds of opinion leaders and the public was a necessary step for all the other strategies to work.

How did you get there? Because, obviously, almost everyone else in the community is moving in this direction of fairness and equality, and yet you saw things quite differently. How?

Well, it took 10 years.

That’s definitely worth noting. We’re going to get to that. Playing the long game was critical, but how? At that moment, did you say, “Everyone else is going in this direction. I think this is completely wrong-headed, mistaken”?

Well, the first thing we did, and this was actually with a little bit of guidance from Stewart Burton, who’s here in the audience today, was published an op-ed in The New York Times in response to that op-ed that the former commandant of the Marine Corps had published, and we got a former Reagan and former Clinton official to sign the op-ed. The op-ed just went through all the research that showed that, “No. Actually, gays and lesbians help the military. It’s discrimination that hurts the military.”

As soon as that op-ed was published, foundation officers responded immediately and started sending checks, and other activists started to take note and they said, “Wow. The New York Times editorial page is buying into this refutation of the unit cohesion rationale. Maybe there’s an opportunity to start having that conversation with the public, the phony conversation, and to get away from this fairness frame.”

You just said something really important. This was a research-based argument. Talk about where you found the research and how you used it, because it’s not a matter of simply throwing some numbers up on the op-ed page of The New York Times and wa-la.

Yeah. The strategy … and I profoundly, radically had no idea what I was doing at the beginning.

That’s not an unfamiliar feeling to many people here, right?

The strategy, it took a year of getting advice from Stewart and other people-

Thank you, Sir.

… to figure out what to do, but there was already a lot of research on the library shelf showing that gays and lesbians don’t hurt the military. That research didn’t matter because no one was reading it. What we decided to do was engage in what would become a decade-long conversational strategy and research-based strategy where every three or four months for a decade, we would produce a new study or release a new series of data, and the study or the data would always be designed to ask exactly the same question, every single time exactly the same question. It was iteration. Do gays and lesbians harm the military, or does discrimination harm the military? We never gave our authors writing assignments. We never said, “You have to go reach this conclusion.” We just asked them to go do a study that asks that question in a slightly different empirical context.

Every study was organized around the same question, but it was slightly different from the previous study, but that wasn’t the trick. The trick was to not let the research stay on the shelf but three or four times a year, with the release of each study, to work really hard to generate national media headlines, which meant Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, or up, that level of media coverage of the research. That literally worked every time. Three or four times a year for a decade, we managed to get a national news story around the message that it’s not gays and lesbians that hurt the military. It’s discrimination, which is why, by the way, it seems so stupid and boring now to say … You think like, “Gays and lesbians hurt the military. What a stupid argument,” but people believed that in the early ’90s.

It seems in retrospect awfully easy. You show up with a study, drop it on the desk of a reporter at the AP or The New York Times. We’ve all done this. “Hey. I’ve got a new study. Here you go,” above the fold, magic, but that’s not exactly how it works.

No.

A lot of relationship building. Actually, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What happened? How’d you get there?

The acid drip that I had every day for 10 years was-

I love this metaphor.

It was about how to convince reporters to take the research seriously, because definitely we were trying to pitch research organized around a stale message. We were trying to make the message stale. The beat reporter for The New York Times on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the late ’90s told me at one point, “I’m not interested in another study that shows that gays and lesbians don’t hurt the military.” The question you’re asking was the question, and it was a little different with each new study, and the bar would go up with each new study to figure out how to break it. It usually came down to finding an interesting human interest angle to go along with the study. I’ll just give one example.

We found out from the governments that the military was spending something like $180 million on firing gays and lesbians. We knew that number was wrong, so we did a study that showed that the number was off by about 100%. They’d spent about twice that firing gays and lesbians. That study, in and of itself, wouldn’t have been newsworthy. We got a former secretary of defense to sign the study as an author. That made it newsworthy. The study went to Good Morning America, with five million viewers. What is that study saying? Discrimination hurts the military, not gays and lesbians. That was just one example of 30 or 40 times when we did that.

Communications is a linchpin through all of this. Why? Why not go in and have private meetings with lawmakers or folks at The Pentagon? Perhaps you did.

Other groups were holding private meetings with lawmakers, and we were actually using our research to reach out to the military. That was a parallel insider communications game because we wanted to empower allies within the armed forces to be able to corrode the rationale for discrimination to within. There were a lot of … We did about 30 visits three times a year to military universities and cultivated a list of about 100 allies, military professors. That was a separate strategy, but the reason for the national communications was because the research would have meant nothing to our allies in Congress and in the military and elsewhere if it wasn’t covered in the media, and that was a lesson that I had to learn, was that a research study that doesn’t get media coverage, 99 times out of 100, is not valuable in Washington. It only has a truth status, if you will, that study only has a truth status and becomes useful as an arrow in a quiver if it gets media coverage, but the problem … and sorry-

No. No. No. Please.

… just to elaborate, is that you think about the thousands of studies that are published every day. The vast majority get zero media coverage. There’s a tremendous … The phenomenon of literature loss is immediate and massive, and that’s the current we’re swimming against. We were one of the weird, rare research organizations that was spending most of its money on communications, not research.

Yet, it didn’t happen overnight. 10 years, or more.

It was an iteration strategy. The logic was that if you … and this was something I learned from communications experts. It’s not something I was trained as an academic, but if you saw one Honda commercial during your life that when you go to buy a car, you’d have zero chance of buying a Honda, of course. It’s only through that steady drip of messaging that minds change. I think a lot of think tanks and NGOs make what I see as a mistake of … and I get that it’s very boring to study one thing again and again and again, but they do an incredible study. Sometimes doing one study does have an effect on changing minds, but most of the time they do a study, and then they move on. Our strategy, at The Palm Center, was premised on the assumption that we’re going to have to repeat our message in the media again and again and again and again in order to get traction and in order to suck the oxygen out of that argument.

During the end game, when President Obama held the final debates on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” some people were still making the argument that gays and lesbians hurt the military, but they were laughed at. I mean, The Daily Show would do segments mocking them. We’d had 10 years of messaging, “Arabic linguists fired for being gay in the midst of a dire shortage of Arabic language translators.” 10 years of messaging like that sucked the oxygen … or actually not just Arabic linguist fired, “New study shows that Arabic linguists were fired for … ” so that’s what sucked the oxygen out of the argument.

2011, President Obama …

Yes.

… finally repeals “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Barely.

Talk to me about the months leading up to that, because what was barely?

We almost lost, and this was just a reminder to me and everyone in the movement that communications is essential and necessary, but without the other strategies, litigation and lobbying and grass roots organizing, street theater even, the public education wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been sufficient. The other groups had to come in at that point and work their magic.

I’m going to open it up for questions in a quick minute so that we can all have a conversation with Aaron about this, because I’m guessing you have some wonderful questions to ask. Tristan is going to be walking around, and I think Maggie as well, with microphones. If you would, please wait until they actually get to you to take the mic, then give your name and tell folks who you’re with.

How did you feel on the day that this finally came to pass, personally? Obviously, I don’t … What was that like?

I started crying on CNN. That’s how I felt. I couldn’t … I was out of body. It was numbing. I was joyous. I was sad, because I knew I was about to lose the issue that had given me meaning for 10 years. It was a good problem to have, but it is a problem. It was an emotional overload.

Okay. Now, let’s jump back in time. The good news is it has been repealed, but surely you encountered some obstacles along the way. It wasn’t just that slow drip. Sometimes the drip didn’t work. Talk about what those might have been. Where did you run into problems?

The strategy did work. Literally, every messaging campaign that we planned did get traction at the national level, but the problems were … So the strategy worked. The problems were within each messaging campaign. We would sometimes bring something to reporters that we’d worked on for two years, and they would say, “Eh, forget about it.” Since our universe of media outlets was so narrow, it was hard to figure out how to retool and make that product, if you will, newsworthy to someone else. Just one example.

Please.

We spent two years and $100,000 on staff time personally, not me but staff, reaching out to 4,000 retired generals and admirals and got 104 of them to sign a statement calling for the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” because discrimination hurts the military, and we couldn’t get anyone to break that. The New York Times wasn’t interested. Pentagon, AP wasn’t interested. That was an example.

My good friend Andy Burness, who’s out here somewhere, reminds me every time I see him, as I think we all probably need to remember, that relationships matter. A big piece of the communication strategy, as I understand it from our conversations, is not just that The New York Times was there to cover the news, but that there were relationships that had been cultivated over time. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Well, in that case of the generals and admirals, we had a relationship with a local AP bureau chief in Baltimore, and one of the admirals who’d signed our statement had been the superintendent at the naval academy close to Baltimore, and because I had a relationship with that bureau chief, he was able to take the story and make national news from a local AP bureau, but the relationships were not just on the … Well, I guess that’s the front end, but if was, of course, the back-end relationships with scholars around the world, who were willing to do work for very low rate of pay because they just wanted to pursue social justice, also with people in the military, who were willing to take the research and use the research to reach out to their own colleagues inside The Pentagon.

Was that easy to do, to find these folks and to build relationships with them? I mean, just pick up the phone and say, “Hey. It’s Aaron. Want to chat?”

No. Especially with the military, it was almost like a one-person-at-a-time method.

You’re building a network.

Well, yeah, because my staff sent letters to the superintendents of dozens of military universities asking for invitations, this was in the very beginning, to come give a speech on gays in the military, and only one person responded, and they said, “Forget it.” It took meeting a military professor from West Point at a conference and then saying, “Could I come to West Point just to tour campus?” He said, “Yes,” and then next year, “Could I come back and deliver a lecture?” He said, “Yes,” and then the next year, “Could you call your friend at Air Force Academy and have them invite me?” He said, “Yes,” and then things started to amplify faster, but it really was one person at a time.

If you can summarize this, what’s the one key strategy, do you think, that’s missing from … I’m going to take this out into the room a little bit. What’s one key strategy that’s missing from most foundation and NGO communications?

That’s a really tough question, but my sense is that … No disrespect.

Are you guys cool? He’s about to go there.

I think many communications departments, importantly and critically, work hard to get their organization’s name in the media. I get how important that is. I also think that there’s a missed opportunity to use communications to change hearts and minds and to change public opinion, because people think it’s too expensive. My group was operating at less than half million dollars a year, which is pretty cheap compared to most NGOs, and we were able to change public opinion. I see a lot of NGOs passing over that opportunity because they think they can’t.

Evan Wolfson, who was probably the chief architect of the marriage equality campaign-

Just to remind folks, Evan Wolfson was the president of Freedom to Marry.

Yeah. He said that what a lot of NGOs forget is that it’s the time between elections when we have to work to change hearts and minds and change public opinion. We can’t rely on the politicians to give us cover.

Questions? I’m going to go ahead … I see … I think it’s Amy. All right. Tristan’s going to make his way down, if you would. Go ahead. I know who you are, but for everybody else, identify yourself. Tristan, will you … Amy’s right up here in the third row.

Audience

Thank you. Hi. I’m Amy Lynn Smith. I’m a freelance writer and strategist, based right here in Detroit. Welcome, everyone. I’m intrigued, particularly as a storyteller, about what you said about using human interest stories to support the data and the research and to elevate that. I’d like to know a little bit more about how you went about weaving those two things together so that they were really compatible and told the story.

So not just the numbers, the people.

Yeah. What a great question, and that was another lesson I was not taught as an academic, but the research was pretty much never newsworthy unless we had great spokespersons to illustrate the injury that the study was illustrating or the benefit that the study was illustrating. For example, we did a 70-page study of whether the British military had fallen apart when they had allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the British military. That was not interesting to The New York Times. The British found that they had no problems with gays and lesbians in the military, and that’s what the study reported.

What was interesting to The New York Times was when we came back to them and repitched the study, but this time with an openly gay member of a submarine crew who’d been fired from the British military and then rehired once they lifted their ban. Just to give another example, we found data that, in the middle of intense shortages, the military was hiring people from the backdoor draft. These were people who had been separated from the military 20 years ago. They were teachers, bus drivers, lawyers, doctors. They were not even in the reserves, but they were being hired back into the military because the military was so desperate for personnel that they were using this backdoor draft at the same time they were firing perfectly competent gay people who were doing the same jobs. That wasn’t interesting to reporters, and then we found a family where the military had hired a mother who’d been working in the civilian sector for 20 years, having just fired her gay son. That was an example of … So the data were not interesting without the human interest angle to illustrate it.

You and I have chatted, and you have a bit of a beef with George Lakoff. A few other folks in the room might as well. Want to explain that? I should probably do that a little bit more … I should be a little bit more eloquent about this. George Lakoff has a model that’s all about framing. You see things slightly differently. You want to explain where you’re coming from?

Well, George Lakoff, who is smarter than I am and far more accomplished, and I deeply respect his work, but his advice to progressives was that we, as progressives … and I’ll say we because I’m a knee-jerk liberal. He said that we need to get better at framing. He gives the example of a bill that is designed to pollute the air and hand out benefits to coal companies, and the Republicans packaged that bill as the Clear Skies Initiative, and once they do that, the Democrats are on the defensive and they’ve lost. He says that you always have to use your own frame because once you start buying into the other person’s frame, then you’ve lost the messaging war.

At least in the narrow context of gays and lesbians in the military, and also transgender military service, we thought it was important to actually use the frame that the other side was using in order to justify bad policy, but to flip that frame on its head. We thought it was important not to try to use slick packaging or try to come up with some new way to talk about the situation, but just to tell the truth, just look at the data and tell the truth and show that gays and lesbians don’t hurt the military, and transgender troops don’t either, and use the truth rather than slick packaging to do public education and to change hearts and minds.

Other questions out there? I see someone right next to Tristan. I’ll move to the other side of the room in a second, but if you would, go ahead, your name and where you’re from, and then when you’re done with your question, hand the mic back to Tristan, please.

Great. Hi. I’m Kitty Julian from The Pittsburgh Foundation. We’re looking, in our region, at just having lost one of our two daily newspapers today, which is a tragedy for lots of reasons, but as you’re talking about the strategy of really bringing these research studies toward media, as the media landscape continues to change nationally, what are some strategies you’re seeing working really well that don’t rely on traditional journalism? Because we can’t rely on it existing, necessarily, in the future.

That’s a great question. It’s a sad question, but that’s a great question.

It is a great question, and I think I’m the wrong person to answer that because The Palm Center was purposefully clunky and backwards on Web 2.0 and then social media, because the hearts and minds that we were trying to change was through network news. We thought that we could only get to network news by placing stories in Associated Press, New York Times, and Washington Post. I understand that there are many, many brilliant strategies for using social media and untraditional approaches to change hearts and minds, but our ultimate aim was members of Congress and the White House and the judiciary and the leaders in the military, opinion leaders in other words, to create a virtuous cycle between opinion leaders and Main Street. As a small organization, we didn’t feel we had the bandwidth to use social media.

I mean, we actually thought it would take more bandwidth to do social media well than to do old media well. Even with the transgender campaign, which only wrapped up three months ago, we stayed focused on just mainstream, old-school media. I don’t have insights into alternative approaches.

Can we talk a little bit about the transgender ban? Congratulations, by the way. Do you want to just explain to people what’s happened? Because some of us may have missed this.

When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, transgender people were left on the side of the road. There was still a transgender ban that was in place. We used exactly the same strategy on transgender that we used on gay, lesbian, bisexual, with the one difference that the set of phony arguments that was propping up bad policy was not quite the unit cohesion rationale. It wasn’t quite that transgender people hurt the military because straight people can’t trust them, or non-transgender people can’t trust them. It was that transgender people hurt the military because their healthcare is so complicated to provide.

We used research to help the American Medical Association pass a resolution that said that, actually, the military wasn’t telling the truth about transgender health. That generated a New York Times editorial, and the bubble burst.

Wow. Wow. Other questions? Other questions? I see you, and I will get to you in one moment, but I think over on this side of the room, any questions? Up in the front row. Yes, Sir. Just wait for the microphone next to Elke. Is that Fuzz? Yeah. Hang on one quick second. Emma is coming.

Hi. My name is Lee. I’m a political scientist, and we, me and my business partner, we run an advocacy firm in Brazil. I want to know what was the lobbying approach, besides the communication approach that you just mentioned, when repealing the law?

The lobbying approach?

Yeah.

Well, at the same time that my group was doing public education, other groups were in the halls of Congress, just literally hundreds of meetings, doing patient education over the years using our research. There was a virtuous cycle with the lobbying and the public education campaign. Of course, there were litigators who were suing the military, raising questions about the constitutionality of the policy, and there were grass roots activists who were chaining themselves to the White House fence. All of this was going on together.

I think, for a lot of folks … Before we get there, let’s talk about messengers, because you had a compelling message. You had data. You had relationships with a lot of people, including journalists and folks in the military. But, you and I have talked about this a lot, messengers matter. You want to talk to me a little bit about what that means to you?

Yeah. One very painful lesson to learn was that The Palm Center and I, personally, were the worst messengers for our own message. We literally had just opened our doors. We hadn’t done anything. We hadn’t even released a … not a study, not even a piece of paper, when the leading experts in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell” referred to us as “a group of homosexual activists.” When their side went to Congress and argued that gays and lesbians will harm the military, they were experts informing public policy with start-of-the-art evidence, but when we spoke, we were homosexual activists. Of course, we did have an agenda that was hidden in plain sight. That didn’t mean we cooked the books, but it did mean we had a point of view, but we were not the best messengers because we were seen as biased.

What we had to do, in most cases, and this was what was so painful, was not take credit for our own work and not put our fingerprints anywhere near many of our stories. The best validators for us were people who you would think, at first glance, might be against gays and lesbians in the military. We spent years and years and years cultivating, in particular, generals and admirals, former secretary of defense, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked them to sign statements, co-author our studies, sign op-eds.

Perhaps the high-water mark of this was we worked with General Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military officer in the United States, to publish a New York Times op-ed on January 2, 2007, where he said, “I used to support discrimination, but I was wrong. I’ve read the research, and it’s true. Gays and lesbians do not hurt the military. It’s discrimination that hurts the military.” That op-ed made it safe for every other ally in the military to speak up. If I had signed that op-ed, it wouldn’t have been published, but it also wouldn’t have been useful. We had to get validators to take credit for our message for us.

Another question from the crowd? I’m looking out there. I see hands. How about here, in the center, third row? Emma, if you can make your way over. Again, your name, who you’re with, and then if you would hand the mic back.

I am Lois Shea from The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. I’m really struck by what you said about the fairness frame not working, and it seems counterintuitive, because it seems so fundamental to who we are as a country and as a people. I’m wondering what lessons we might take from that in communicating about other things, for instance opportunity and equality in this country.

That’s a great question because that’s where we were going to go next. Thank you.

These are brilliant questions. Yeah. Just on the fairness frame, Admiral Mullen, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, used the fairness frame and the integrity frame, and his messaging was it compromises military integrity to force people to lie. He was able to get away with that frame as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I don’t think he could have gotten away with that frame if the community hadn’t made it safe to use that frame with 10 years of messaging that gays and lesbians don’t hurt the military, because his own generals and admirals then would have had a weapon to use against him.

I did an event with Admiral Mullen after “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, just asking him to explain his role when he was gracious enough to do the event, but he admonished me a little bit, which was fine, but he said, “You know, why weren’t you guys using the fairness and integrity frame for all those years, and instead talking about military effectiveness?” Look, for better or worse, this is a highly-militarized society. Scholars worry about that. What that means is, of course, the military deserves respect for defending the nation, but when respect translates into uncritical glorification, that’s what militarization is. In a highly-militarized society, the message that a policy is harming the military, to my mind, is almost always going to trump concerns about fairness and democracy and equality, which is a bummer. It’s not my personal preference, but it was just the landscape that we were faced with.

I think that you’re gesturing at a very important point, which was that our strategy was not cost free, because in buying into the phony arguments of the other side, if only for the sake of refutation, we were buying into a militarized set of assumptions about the nobility and the value … If you look at the gay and lesbian messaging for 10 years, it’s as if there was no problem whatsoever with the wars or with what the military does around the world. We purposefully couldn’t talk about torture or sexual assault or the downside of militarism. A lot of communities, minority communities, have made the same choice.

In terms of lessons for other moments and opportunities, I have to be very careful, very humble about this because my experience is only in the context of two issue campaigns, gays and lesbians in the military and transgender military service, but what I can do is underscore that our messaging was not cost free and it was not perfect messaging, but we made the strategic choice to use that messaging because … Well, I did because I didn’t see another path to getting to repeal, and my concern was not … I mean, I’m very concerned about gay and lesbians troops who were being fired, but my bigger concern was that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was so dangerous for American citizenship. To have the government firing people on the basis of who we are is a very, very dangerous precedent for citizenship. In order to get rid of that, we had to use imperfect messaging.

Another question? Another question? Here, in the center, about three or four rows back. Tristan’s coming with the microphone right now.

Thanks. Hi. George Perlov, George Perlov Consulting, from Brussels. Hi. Thank you so much. Great work. I guess, in a lot of ways, it’s great to hear this story again, and I’m saying story because 2010, ’11, it feels like ancient history now, in a lot of ways. So much has happened since then, in terms of the LGBT movement, with marriage, et cetera, et cetera, so much more to go, in terms of what’s happening at the state level, and still transgender rights and things like that.

At the same time, we’ve talked a little bit on social media, and even the fact about truth, when we tell truths in the society, and the truth has less value in news and around the world these days. I’m just curious, with all that and where this movement is going and other movements are going, what do you think we need to be thinking about as communicators and strategists and researchers?

The question, I think, George, if I can simplify, is does the truth matter? Does research still matter in a time when apparently we can all live in our own reality?

Can I just say how helpful and awesome these questions are?

Yes. Thank you.

Thank you so much. I don’t believe that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, but I do believe that social justice organizations have fallen asleep at the wheel a little bit in not doing enough to use communications and public education in long-game strategies to contest the culture of nonsense that inflects so much of our political discourse. I’ll just give one …

Yeah. Yeah.

I’ll just give one micro example. I was talking with Danny before the session about foster care and how there’s just no government spending, or not enough government spending, on keeping families strong. So much of our politics is a function of the tiny size of government right now. Our government is tiny, and when you factor in the fact that a trillion dollars, not 600 million as the media reports, but a trillion dollars goes to national security, the amounts of federal and state spending on civilian programs, on butter as opposed to guns, is nothing compared to other western industrialized countries.

The reason for that, of course, is because our tax collection and our tax base is so, so low, because we collect far less in taxes than other comparable countries. Yet, there’s an assumption in this country that spending is high and the government is big and taxes are high. Where is the messaging, not just once, but time after time after time after time, again and again and again, month after month, year after year? “New study shows government spending is low. New study shows taxes are low. New study shows government decision making is actually more effective than corporate decision making in many different contexts.” We have allowed … I’m not allowed to be partisan here, right?

Let’s not. Let’s not.

We have allowed some people to convince the public of blatant falsehoods. Every time a Democrat tries to … Every time a person tries to … Every time a politician tries to raise taxes, they run into this massive public delusion. Barack Obama, in his brilliance, is able to get with, what, I think a 4% marginal tax increase on income over $435,000, but that’s not nearly what we need in order to make our society healthy and whole and solve some of the foster children problems that Danny was telling me about. Yet, we’re not educating the public about these falsehoods. I get deeply that the education isn’t always enough. Look at global warming. Much of the public does understand that climate change is a function of human action, and yet we don’t have climate change legislation.

Public education isn’t sufficient, but what I would say is look at when President Obama tried to get climate change legislation. He failed, but let’s say he had a 20%, 30% chance of getting climate change legislation. If we hadn’t done the public education to help the public understand that climate change is caused by humans, he would have had a 0% chance of getting legislation. We have to educate the public about the culture of nonsense that makes it impossible to pursue reform before we’re going to pursue the reform. That is what I would say about the truth mattering. We have to make the truth matter through research and public education.

Yeah. Let’s test the model that you developed on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in a contemporary context. I’m just going to toss out a couple of issues. Pick one. Pick two. Gun control, something very near and dear to my family’s heart, immigration, a number of folks here working on that, racial justice.

Yeah. In two minutes and 24 seconds?

We’ll go over. Anybody mind if we eat into your networking time just a little bit? I’m curious what he has to say. All right. I don’t see anybody, so let’s go ahead.

Okay. Not an expert on these. This might be upside down, dead wrong-

Stipulated.

… but I’ll try. On gun control, I teach gun control to my kids.

You and I talked about this. I call it gun safety. We used to do some work on this.

And you told me to use that frame, and I forgot because I have a bad memory.

That’s okay. We’ll just say guns for now.

Gun safety. I have trouble finding research that shows that gun control works, and I see a lot of the advocacy groups doing great work, but at some level, playing the NRAs game and trying to do it better than the NRA, which is never going to work. Would it work to publish study after study after study after study that shows that gun control saves lives, gun control makes people … gun safety makes people safer, gun safety works, and to generate messaging around those studies time after time again? I don’t think it would be sufficient to get gun safety legislation, but I think it would help. I think it would help a lot.

Immigration.

Immigration is a really tough one, and I’ve worked a little bit with the folks working on messaging on immigration. I think that the immigration conversation is inflected by many aspects of delusion and many falsehoods that could be contested by a stream of research, but one of the basic falsehoods that I think sustains a lot of bad policy is that people buy into the lie that this country gives more to immigrants than it takes, including illegal immigrants. We actually steal about, if my memory is correct, I think it’s eight billion dollars a year in social security taxes from undocumented workers, who are working and getting social security contributions from their employers but will never collect on that money.

What about a stream of messaging that shows, based on research, that immigrants are contributing and giving more to society than they’re taking? I know that’s being done a little bit, but what about more?

Obviously, we didn’t talk about this at the outset, but it’s been an amazingly soul crushing year for those folks working on racial justice, for all of us as Americans. Unfortunately, we turn on the television or flip on Twitter, and there’s another awful event for us to contend with and to try to understand. Racial justice.

Yeah. Verging far, far, far outside of my expertise, the reason the “don’t ask, don’t tell” model worked is because bad policy was propped up by a lie that was concealing paranoia. There was a lie about military effectiveness that was concealing dislike and fear of gays. In the racial justice conversation, people are more honest with their racism, perhaps counterintuitively, than they were about their homophobia in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation.

Again, with lots of caution and humility about whether this approach would work on racial justice, I believe that despite the fact that a lot of people who oppose fairness are willing to be honest about their racism, I believe that it would be helpful if we had a string of research again and again and again and again with public messaging around Michelle Alexander’s point, that we live in Jim Crow, that this is Jim Crow, that when we tell ourselves we’re in a democracy, that that’s just not true, because Jim Crow is alive and well. The laws that articulate it are slightly less explicitly about racial injustice, but they nonetheless have the effect that Michelle Alexander says they do, and I don’t think the public gets that enough.

I think we have to leave it there. Thank you, all, so much. We have a lot more ahead. I want to thank Aaron. Thank you. I think you now, if you didn’t before, understand that this man is an American hero, and I am so grateful that you were here with us today.

All right. Now it’s time for us to, I guess, do a little networking break. Here’s something that I’d just like to share. In the spirit of why we gather, I want to make sure that you talk to people you don’t know. I saw folks as they were coming in seeing people they knew and saying, “Hey. Where are you going to sit?” Can I ask, just as a favor to me, next time we come in here sit next to somebody you don’t know? Because that’s the ultimate aim of the network, is to connect us to people. Somebody in here is a future mentor or an employee or a boss, and the only way you’re going to meet them is by talking to somebody you don’t know. By all means, please, go out and talk to strangers, everybody here. I have the luxury of knowing many, many, many of you. You’re all cool. See you in a bit.

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member