Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2011

In 1987, the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation awarded a group called Alternatives to Militarism the first known grant to challenge military regulations on homosexual behavior. The topic worked its way into politics, and during the 1992 Presidential race Bill Clinton said he would be willing to sign an executive order permitting homosexuality in the armed forces. The compromise that eventually resulted, known as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, went into effect in 1993.

Almost immediately, gay activists and their philanthropic supporters went to work to overturn all remaining strictures. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was created in 1993 and fueled by more than $7 million in foundation grants. It provided counsel to troops who ran afoul of the ban on open homosexual behavior, ran media campaigns against the rule, and organized the first legislative efforts to go beyond it. Similar work was carried out by other nonprofits operating with donations earmarked for this cause. The American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the Center for American Progress and others “played a critical role in mobilizing grassroots support, taking on early legal battles, monitoring media debates, and publishing position papers,” according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The most dogged and focused efforts on this front were carried out by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, which changed its name to the Palm Center after receiving a $1 million contribution from the Michael Palm Foundation in 2006. The center produced a steady stream of papers criticizing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and circulated them through academe and the media. Their work was central to the 2011 establishment of a new policy protecting overt homosexuality in the military. Since overturning “don’t ask,” the Palm Center’s main project has been to end strictures on transgender service and sex changes among military personnel.

Grants of more than $12 million were used to undo “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with the Evelyn and Walter Haas Fund and the Wells Fargo, Gill, and Arcus foundations being other lead donors. Three quarters of that money was offered as super-flexible general operating funding. More than 20 donors supported the organizations leading the charge for at least five years in a row, with many of them loyally providing funds every year for over a decade.