Zoe Dunning would love to be able to say that with one stroke of President Barack Obama’s pen he ended her 18-year fight for equality in the United States Military by signing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” three days before Christmas in 2010.
That, however, would be far too simplistic in the world of politics or in life in general.
“He used 13 pens to write his name,” she said, each pen employed for a minimal stroke before he handed it off to one of the people who joined him for the ceremony. No, Dunning did not score a pen, though one did go to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the organization she led and represented at the signing.
Instead, she got something much greater than a slightly used souvenir ballpoint. She scored a victory for herself and for all other lesbian and gay service members, the long overdue ability to serve openly in the military. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, developed under President Clinton in 1993, prohibited gay service members from serving openly in the military and effectively legalized discriminatory behavior towards them. Though later modified in the early 2000’s to prohibit the military from pursuing or harassing anyone identifying as LGB, the result was the forced discharge of more than 13,000 people during its 17-year existence.
(While the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did not apply to transgender military personnel, they could serve openly and receive medical care under an Obama-era policy. The Trump Administration banned them serving in the military altogether in November 2019. Zoe note – I believe transgender troops currently serving were grandfathered in.)
Because of her legal fight and personal determination, Obama chose Dunning – who served 13 years as the only openly gay member of the U.S. military – to stand next to him as he signed the repeal document that day.
“It was the culmination of a lot of emotions,” said Dunning, appointed to the California Veterans Board at CalVet by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019. “It was a tremendous honor. It was one of the most important Civil Rights pieces of legislation in my lifetime.”
“Zoe fought a bad system and won so that others don’t have to live a lie to serve their country,” said CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani MD, who spent 27 years as an Army surgeon. “I know this because I also worked on efforts to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, met with legislators and military leaders, and worked with President Obama behind the scenes – because that really was the only option at the time for active-duty. We share the passion of serving ALL of our veterans.”
Dunning grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both parents served during World War II: her dad in the Army Air Corps, her mom in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). Dunning chose the military in no small part due to their service.
“I didn’t have money for college,” she said. She applied to the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland. “I was in the sixth class with women allowed at Annapolis. There were no women in leadership positions or to look out for (other women).”
She graduated in 1985 and became a supply officer on the USS Lexington, stationed in Pensacola, Florida, and later worked in Washington DC at Naval Security Station. Like other LGBTQ service members in the military, she had to shield her personal life to avoid expulsion.
“You’re constantly living in cognitive dissonance,” Dunning said. “An organization you value and you cherish – that demands honesty and integrity – also makes you hide who you are.”
It meant distancing herself from her shipmates, not sharing about her life.
“I was tired of hiding who I was,” she said. “So I transitioned into the Reserve in 1991.”
She remained in the Reserve while working toward her master’s degree at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In January 1993, she spoke at a rally outside Moffett Field in Mountain View, where she came out publicly for the first time.
“It was such a spontaneous choice,” Dunning said. “If you gave yourself time to think about it, you’d talk yourself out of it.”
In reality, she thought perhaps her talk would go unnoticed. Instead, when she reported to Reserve duty at Alameda, the Navy immediately put her on administrative leave. It began her 18-year fight against the military’s discriminatory policies. Twice, she faced discharge hearings, losing the first but winning the second, which happened after President Clinton signed “Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell” into law. Between hearings, she was selected for promotion and received top fitness ratings.
She prevailed, and remained in the Reserve until retiring in 2007 ending a rewarding, yet tumultuous, 22-year military career.
“My statement was about who I am,” she said. “The Pentagon issued a memorandum that made my legal strategy illegal going forward.”
“After I won my hearing, I gave a news interview at Treasure Island,” Dunning said “A random car pulled up and a sailor in ‘Crackerjacks’ (white sailor’s uniform) got out and saluted me.”
A rewarding moment, indeed. Dunning continued to advocate for LGBTQ in the military and to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” leading her to that day next to the president as he repealed the policy in 2010.
On the floor, a marking bearing her name dictated where she needed to stand for the signing ceremony. She felt someone nudge her closer to the desk, and deeper into the photo op. The person nudging her? Vice-President Joe Biden, who understood the moment at hand.
“He pushed me toward the desk, basically saying ‘Get up there before the politicians move in,’ ” she said.
Thirteen pens later, the ink dried on her place in history.