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Case Study: Dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of our Case for Communications series.

How the Palm Center used long-term, strategic communications to break down a widely held belief and overturn a discriminatory Pentagon policy.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the United States military, was in effect from the beginning of the Clinton administration until 2011, when it was repealed under President Barack Obama.

Aaron Belkin is founding director of the Palm Center, a research institute that used social science research to inform and shift public opinion about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Communications Network’s Sean Gibbons interviewed Belkin about the communications strategy behind the historic effort.

Sean Gibbons: You played a really unique role in the dismantling of this policy. What was it, and why was it problematic?

Aaron Belkin: The military has been firing gay people for a long time. George Washington drummed a soldier out of the Continental Army for sodomy in 1778.

In the early 1990s, Congress passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The law worked like this: Gays and lesbians would be fired from the military if they were open about their identity, but if you remained silent and never told anybody you were gay, then in theory you would be allowed to continue to serve.

The policy led to all kinds of negative consequences, including wasted talent and money. It was also suspect constitutionally. The government was rooting out people based on their identity—for being gay—and then imposing severe consequences on them.

Gibbons: You and many of your colleagues decided there was something that you could do …

Belkin: There were a lot of advocates pursuing a lot of different strategies, but there was one particular area where my colleagues and I thought we could make a difference. There was a huge obstacle that no one was doing anything about: The 10,000-pound boulder right in the middle of the road to repeal was an entrenched belief.

In 1993, during the period when President Clinton was trying to get the military to overturn the ban, an overwhelming coalition formed against him, and they had to tell a story about why gays should not be allowed to serve. They couldn’t just go to Congress and say, “Gays and lesbians should be banned from the military because we don’t like them, because we’re homophobic, or because we’re intolerant.”

So, they made up a phony story called the “unit cohesion rationale,” or the “military readiness argument.” They said, “Even though we opinion leaders and military brass like gays and lesbians, the soldiers and Marines who are in foxholes don’t trust them, and this harms military readiness.” The story was that if openly gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve, the glue that holds units together—unit cohesion—would never develop, or if it had developed, it would shatter.

A few years into “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a soldier named Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, because his peers thought he was gay. This generated some above-the-fold New York Times coverage, and some pressure on Congress and the military to lift the ban. But toward the end of that news cycle, a former commandant of the Marine Corps published a New York Times op-ed that said, “Look, we’re really sorry that this young service member was beaten to death with a baseball bat, but we cannot change the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. If we allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, then service members will die in combat because unit cohesion will fall apart.”

This was a deeply entrenched idea that would always stand in the way of repeal as long as it seemed persuasive. So we decided to try to get rid of it.

Gibbons: What was the goal that you identified to move forward?

Belkin: The key was to inform public opinion. To use research to help public and opinion leaders understand that gays don’t harm the military, that the unit cohesion rationale was untrue, and that discrimination hurt the military, not gay and lesbian troops. Military research had already found that the unit cohesion idea was untrue, but there’s a difference between scholars knowing something and opinion leaders knowing something. Someone had to step up and disable the unit cohesion rationale in the court of public opinion. Unless that happened, it would never be possible to repeal the ban.

To get rid of the ban, we had to disable that argument through aggressive, iterative communication.

Gibbons: Why communications as the linchpin?

Belkin: You can’t get rid of an idea by lobbying the halls of Congress, or with litigation, grassroots organizing, or other advocacy tactics. The unit cohesion idea so deeply saturated the public’s consciousness that there was no other viable alternative aside from communications. We had to explain to opinion leaders and the American public—again and again and again—that they had been lied to.

Gibbons: How did you do this?

Belkin: We realized it’s impossible to inform public opinion quickly and decided to play the long game.

We also were mindful of an advertising strategy for informing public opinion: To really change someone’s mind, you need to expose them to a steady drip of information until the idea sinks in. If Honda Motor Company ran only one advertisement during the course of your lifetime, for example, there’d be very little chance that you’d consider a Honda when you went to buy a car. If you were exposed to Honda advertisements your whole life, you’d more likely to buy one.

We wanted to make national news three or four times a year, pointing out that new research showed gays and lesbians do not hurt the military, but discrimination does. The key was implementation: How to make the research interesting enough for journalists to cover it.

The whole point was to try to make our message “stale” through iteration, but if we succeeded, and our message became even a little bit stale, then why would a journalist want to cover it again? At one point pretty early in the process, the reporter assigned to follow “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for The New York Times told me, “I don’t need to see another study showing gays and lesbians don’t harm the military.” We had to figure out how to make the research newsworthy.

It was also important to remain credible by subjecting our research to peer review, always being honest, and even publicizing data that was inconsistent with our beliefs.

Gibbons: What obstacles did you encounter?

Belkin: The biggest challenge was making our message and research newsworthy. Thousands of studies are published every week, but very few receive media attention. And research is especially not newsworthy when it comes to the exact same conclusion as all the other research.

Gibbons: How did you overcome that?

Belkin: The basic idea was to try to tap into some particular piece of the news cycle and attach our message to it. Right after September 11th we found out that a cable warning of the attack had been intercepted, but hadn’t been translated because the government didn’t have enough Arabic linguists. We also found out that the military had fired seven Arabic linguists for being gay. And so we were able to make an international news story about the fact that the government was firing Arabic linguists. That story just exploded. We repeated variations of that story three or four times over 10 years, but the first time it went viral was the moment when the public realized, in the most vivid terms, that there is a security cost to discrimination.

A second strategy was to get “validators” to publicize our research and arguments for us. We spent two years and about $100,000 of staff time reaching out to 4,000 retired generals and admirals, asking if they would sign a statement saying that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” harmed the military. A hundred and four of them were willing. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer covered the story.

A third strategy was to focus on government waste. We put together a commission, which included Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, to analyze the financial cost of firing gays and lesbians. The cost was about 80 percent higher than the Government Accountability Office had estimated, and that made national headlines; our research showed that discrimination was wasting taxpayer money.

A fourth strategy was to focus on blatant hypocrisy. In one instance, we discovered that the military was sending known gay troops to war, and then firing them when they returned to the United States. But if gays and lesbians harm the military, shouldn’t they be fired beforethey’re sent into combat, not after? We gained a lot of traction and media coverage by underscoring that point. Another time we learned that the military was hiring convicted felons, including individuals convicted of “making terrorist threats.” I very much believe in the importance of giving ex-convicts another chance, but it’s quite something when the military has to replace skilled gay and lesbian troops with terrorists. That generated New York Times and Associated Press stories, and went viral around the world.

The message behind all these stories was the same: Discrimination hurts the military, not gay and lesbian troops.

Gibbons: What did you learn along the way?

Belkin: When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” first became law, a survey showed that something like 97 percent of generals and admirals were opposed to gays and lesbians serving in the military. It was amazing to me that by patiently cultivating relationships with generals and admirals, going back to them again and again with scholarly evidence, we could actually change their minds.

Another powerful lesson was that journalists emphasized human relations aspects to stories, instead of data that illustrated broader trends. For example, reporters would be less interested in a study showing that some country’s military had lifted its gay ban and not suffered any problems, and more interested in finding a service member from that country who would talk to them on the record. The story would be mostly about that one person, and mention the research very briefly.

Gibbons: What were the critical components of the things that really worked?

Belkin: The critical components were, first of all, being right about the Achilles heel in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the idea that openly gay and lesbian servicepeople harm unit cohesion. We could’ve spent 10 years saying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was unfair, hurting gay and lesbian troops, and leading to a lot of discharges and suffering, but that would’ve done nothing to get rid of that 10,000-pound boulder in the middle of our road, blocking progress.

The second most important thing was the combination of message discipline and iteration. We stayed focused on that Achilles heel, and used research again and again to demonstrate loudly in national headlines that the main belief behind “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a lie.

Third, when the Palm Center started its work, the gay community was responding to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by saying it was unfair and anti-democratic. But that frame was never going to be sufficient for getting rid of the policy. We needed to engage the other side’s frame, because in the minds of the public, military effectiveness was more important than fairness. Then we flipped that frame on its head.

Gibbons: A big piece of this work has been relationship building. You built relationships with journalists, folks in the military, the research community, and presumably folks doing adjacent work on the lobbying side of things or other spaces. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Belkin: One important set of relationships was with scholars and the people who were doing our research. Most scholars who I approached entered the academy because they wanted to change the world for the better. But they soon realized that no one really paid attention to their work outside of the university setting. When I told scholars about our strategy for getting the media to cover their research and actually influence Washington, they were almost always willing to help me.

Over the years, I made about 30 visits to military universities and cultivated a list of more than 100 military professors who opposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” During the end game in 2009 and 2010, when Congress was debating what to do under President Obama, that group of scholars was incredibly helpful. During two days of Senate hearings, for example, we kept track of all the claims witnesses were making. At the end of each day, we released a rapid response fact sheet showing where the witnesses had not told the truth, and a large group of military professors signed it. Senator Udall actually read one of them to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had to sit there and listen to the list of the misstatements they had made the previous day.

When the Pentagon realized that President Obama was serious about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and started to study the issue, it reached out to its own military universities and to many of the people who I had maintained professional relationships with for the previous decade, and brought those allies to Washington—sometimes just for one-off meetings to share opinions, and sometimes for the whole year to help with repeal. That internal network of military professor allies was unbelievably important.

Gibbons: If you’re working in global health, for instance, how would the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” work be applicable to you? What could you take away and apply?

Belkin: The question would be whether there are any big ideas in global health that are serving as the 10,000-pound boulders standing in the way of progress. If the main obstacles in a particular social justice movement are beliefs, then the same strategy we used could work.

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