December 20, 2018 at 8:00 pm PST | by Karen Ocamb
David Mixner on how DADT happened

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton thanking friend David Mixner at ANGLE event in 1991 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

David Mixner is a pacifist, a firm believer in the principles espoused by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was prepared to go to prison for five years rather than respond to the draft—or come out as gay. He got a deferment after being beaten up by police during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The following year, as co-organizer for the October 15, 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, he met Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar with whom he started a decades-long friendship.    

AIDS, not gays in the military, was top of mind for Mixner, a longtime Los Angeles-based political consultant. But over dinners, he started hearing about gays serving in silence. “Clearly there was nothing more visible, more dramatic, more powerful than the image of LGBT Americans wanting to serve their country and going through everything from harassment to beatings to death to court martials to dishonorable discharge, losing benefits, losing families—it was an appalling situation,” Mixner told the Los Angeles Blade. “I can’t have my personal beliefs override the freedom of others.”

Then in 1991, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton called to say he was running for President and wanted Mixner’s support. Mixner hesitated, which annoyed Clinton. Mixner explained that he didn’t know where his old friend stood on gay issues. “I cannot go through this era of AIDS, losing hundreds of friends and just, for power’s sake, sign onto your campaign. It dishonors all of their deaths.”

Clinton told him to draw up a list of what he wanted and give it to their mutual friend, Los Angeles-based attorney Mickey Kantor. Mixner sent three issues: the gay Civil Rights Bill, sign an executive order lifting the ban on gays in the military and fund and expedite the process for promising HIV/AIDS drugs. Not a problem, Clinton replied.

The problem was that most of the LGBT community supported Paul Tsongas and didn’t know “this Bubba from the South,” Mixner says. He invited Tsongas and Clinton to meet with ANGLE, a political checkbook activist group that met in the Hollywood Hills home of Dr. Scott Hitt and Alex Kolezar.

Tsongas was arrogant; Clinton was charming. After pledging to support all three issues, attorney Diane Abbitt asked him: “How do we know we can believe you—that you’re not just another hot bag of air?” Clinton said he’d prove himself. Which he did, telling the surprised press that he would have signed AB 101, the gay rights bill Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed. And he promised to sign the military executive order.

ANGLE’s Diane Abbitt reading a passage from “Conduct Unbecoming” at an ANGLE event at a Hollywood studio starring several out gay and lesbian service members in 1993 – Photo by Karen Ocamb

But the executive order wasn’t without controversy inside the Clinton campaign. But Mixner and ANGLE pushed hard, raising lots of money and insisting “gay rights” be part of Clinton’s talking points. And when the Paula Jones/Jennifer Flowers scandal popped up, ANGLE stuck with Clinton, even as others declared his candidacy dead. ANGLE bought one third of all the tickets to a major Warren Christopher-hosted fundraiser at the Beverly Wilshire, with a gay reception hosted by Mixner and Roberta Achtenberg before the big dinner. 

“It was the darkest moment of the Clinton campaign and there we were visible, loyal and strong,” Mixner says.  “That was a real turning point for us in the Clinton campaign. They never forgot it. And the money we raised really helped them stay alive in New Hampshire.”

Mixner pressed Clinton to appear before the gay community. Though it became one of his most famous campaign moment, it almost didn’t happen. Mixner had already sold out the Palace in Hollywood and if the press couldn’t attend, there would be some $200,000 left on the table. Clinton relented and recommitted to lifting the ban, giving money to fight AIDS and supporting gay rights.

Then came the nominating convention. Bob Hattoy and Elizabeth Glaser spoke about AIDS in primetime. But an early copy of Clinton’s acceptance speech was missing the word “gay.”

Tom Henderson and Mixner organized eight delegations that would walk out if no mention was made. Mixner gave an ultimatum and the campaign was livid. But Clinton included the reference, thrilling LGBTs and allies in the macarena-dancing crowd. When Clinton won, the LGBT community started counting down to freedom after the long dark night of Reagan/Bush years with thousands lost to AIDS.

But Mixner saw trouble brewing. A decision was expected soon in Keith Meinhold’s federal court case challenging his discharge under the gay ban. Two weeks before the election, Mixner and his close associate Jeremy Bernard trekked down to Little Rock, Arkansas to discuss how “the reality of rhetoric and implementation after you’re elected is two different things.” They needed someone in the transition team to assume gay issues in their portfolio.

“No one wanted it,” Mixner says. “They were all lining up for their jobs and they thought that if this was in their portfolio, that they would not be taken seriously. And quite honestly, I wasn’t taken seriously.”

After Clinton won, the community turned to Mixner, Bob Hattoy and Roberta Achtenberg for answers. Meanwhile, the Meinhold case is heating up. Mixner calls the campaign to say someone needs to brief the president-elect. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” they say. “Well, the morning of Clinton’s first post-election press conference, guess what came down? The Meinhold decision. So the very first question that the New York Times asked: ‘Given the Meinhold decision, are you still going to issue the executive order on the military?’ Clinton, not having been briefed and not realizing that a campaign was different from governing, which I kept trying to tell him, wasn’t prepared and said yes.”

The campaign was shocked that the executive order on gays in the military dominated the headlines. “They all were caught off guard,” Mixner says. “They shouldn’t have been. They were all briefed two weeks before the election but no one listened. They went into sheer panic.”

But Mixner had an idea: “do what Jimmy Carter did on amnesty for draft dodgers, which was equally as controversial.” Immediately after he was sworn in as president, Mixner says, Carter “signed about twelve tough executive orders that got lost in the press about the inauguration, the parties, the parades, the speech—and it worked. It was just done. Amnesty was granted, some people fought it but it was a done deal and it got lost, it became a sidebar story of the inauguration.”

Why not do that on the military? About 20 orders, just like Carter “and then it’s done,” Mixner says. “They thought it was a great idea and they sent someone to look at what Carter did. That’s what we believed was going to be done up until just before the Inauguration.”

Mixner was in his hotel, nervous about a big event honoring him that night. He got a call from Clinton top campaign advisor George Stephanopoulos.

“He said, ‘David, we need your help.’ I said, ‘sure.’ He said, ‘We’re not going to sign the executive order.’ I said, ‘This is crazy.’ He said, ‘Listen, we feel we need six months to build public support. The president told me to tell you that he gives you his word that he’ll sign it in six months but we want the community to raise money and to do this and we need you to go and deliver that message to the community.’”

“I said, ‘Would the president promise me if we do all of that that he’ll sign it in six months?’”

“You have the president’s word,” Stephanopoulos told Mixner.

Mixner delivered the word that night and the next day to HRCF. “That’s where the idea for the Campaign for Military Service came in,” Mixner says. Tom Stoddard agreed to head the new organization. “There was not a better choice. Everyone was excited. A man of principle, of dignity, a brilliant organizer, one of the kindest people I knew. I was thrilled,” Mixner says.

And with that, they began organizing at Bob Shrum and Mary Louise Oates’ living room with David Geffen and Barry Diller promising to raise “huge amounts of money” and Fred Hochberg agreeing to be Treasurer.

“And off we were,” says Mixner. They organized a major campaign with unions and religious groups joining in and polls going up. “We did everything the president asked us to do.”

But instead of acting presidential, calling in the commanders-in-chief and announcing that they accept his change in policy or resign—Clinton failed the leadership test. And into the vacuum stepped Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat considered by Mixner to be a racist bully.

“Sam Nunn supported (Alabama Gov.) George Wallace twice,” Mixner says. “And he was head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was a big believer in segregation. And he said, ‘not on my watch’ and he called (Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell and he held hearings and the White House wasn’t prepared.”

Nunn also created the media narrative, going with Sen. John Warner into the sleeping quarters on a submarine and asking sailors lying together in close quarters how they felt about allowing gays in the military.

“That picture was on the front page everywhere,” says Mixner. “So that sent them into a panic and Clinton came back and said, evidently, to his staff, we can’t have gays sleep with straights like that.’ And that’s when he suggested that perhaps they would explore the options of segregated barracks and segregated units. They didn’t use the word ‘segregated’ but separate. I went through the roof.”

Discharged gay Naval aviator Tracy Thorne was booked on ABC News’ Nightline and asked Mixner to go along. “That’s when I said, ‘Segregation didn’t work for blacks and we wouldn’t accept it and it was nothing more than a segregated plan.’ And I really let loose that this was a totally unacceptable solution,” Mixner says. “Well, that got the White House really angry at me.”

Mixner then went to Dallas where on March 27, 1993, he delivered a speech at the mega-MCC Church entitled “the Story of Self-Hatred” about AIDS, segregation, and gay and lesbian civil rights that is now in a collection of great civil rights speeches called “Ripples of Hope.”

The Clinton administration was angry and the gay community was annoyed that Mixner’s public pronouncements might cost access to political power after so many years in the wilderness.

“Rahm Emanuel decided that if he could make me a target, he could send a message that you’ll lose access and you’ll be punished if you speak out against this administration,” Mixner says. The “first act of that punishment” came in April before the March on Washington when Clinton held the historic meeting in the Oval Office between the President of the United States and the LGBT community “and I was taken off the list.”

Longtime LA-based lesbian activist Torie Osborn brought a signed copy of Randy Shilts’ very detailed “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military” to the meeting, which Clinton held when they posed for pictures.

“That was painful for me quite honestly, very painful. It hurt. Because that was one of my dreams of being in the first meeting,” Mixner says. “But you know, you live your principles and there’s a price sometimes. And sometimes there’s great price.”

Then in mid-May, without any notification to Tom Stoddard or Mixner or HRCF, out Rep. Barney Frank announces that a compromise had been reached with the president called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“We read about it in the fuckin’ newspaper,” Mixner says, his voice rising. “Barney literally betrayed us. He didn’t consult with any of us. They went to him and Barney was in love with Stephanopoulos and cut this deal.”

Suddenly, Mixner says, “the concept of an executive order was thrown out the window and the community, caught off guard, sort of started buying into this as a ‘compromise.’ Ending it would take an act of Congress instead of the signature of the president. But Clinton wanted that. He just wanted it off his fuckin’ desk.”

Tim McFeeley, executive director of HRCF, was the first to protest and get arrested.

After Clinton’s official announcement of the new policy on a military base flanked by generals, Mixner got a call in LA from Stephanopoulos. “He said, ‘We want your support on this, David. It’s fact. It’s done.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. This is going to be a disastrous policy. No one can live like that. It’s going to set up black mail. It will destroy thousands of lives’—and it did. There’s things I’ve been wrong on and there’s things I’ve been right on and this was one of ’em that I was right on.”

Numerous gay people on the inside offered Clinton support, suggesting Mixner was now among the fringe on the outside. He knew the price if he protested and got arrested like McFeeley.

“It isn’t like I was naive,” Mixner says. “I knew Clinton and I knew Emanuel. I knew all of them. I knew how the game was played. I went into it with open eyes that I would cut off all access to the White House. And I decided to get arrested.”

David Mixner, Diane Abbitt, John Duran among those arrested at the White House gate after DADT announced. Photo by Jeremy Bernard

But first, Mixner met with ANGLE, sharing his decision and that he didn’t expect them to join him. “This is a personal decision. I went around the country. I got him to say this stuff. I got you involved. I feel personal responsibility to give witness, though it’s not going to change the policy. It’s an old Quaker tradition of giving witness against a great evil, even though you can’t change it. I’ve gotta give witness,” Mixner says. “And much to their credit, most all of ANGLE joined in. And those who didn’t join in getting arrested were responsible for getting us out of jail.”

It was front page news and the next day Rahm Emanuel announced that Mixner was no longer welcome in the White House—nor were any of the people that he worked with.

“In twenty-four hours, I lost every one of my clients and couldn’t work for four years. I was selling watches to pay for my rent. Jeremy, literally, was taking my watches down to pawn shops to pay for my rent,” Mixner says.

The Advocate put him on the cover: “David Mixner, Friend of Nobody,” which added to the pain.

“There were people who committed suicide, several were sent to Leavenworth, over fourteen thousand were dismissed without benefits, dishonorably,” he recalls. “Just as we thought would happen. It was horrendous. And it all depended on who their commander was. If you had a good commander sometimes they ignored it. If you had a so-so commander they’d just give you a dishonorable discharge and let it go. If you had a bad commander, they’d go out of the way to make sure you paid a price.”

President Obama “had to spend his first four years overturning the damage that Clinton did to us,” he says. Mixner and Clinton eventually reconciled in 1998 at an ANGLE fundraiser in Beverly Hills featuring new California Gov. Gray Davis. 

Mixner was “very teary” during the ceremony when Obama signed the repeal of DADT. “I never thought I’d see the day and had paid such a price,” he says. “The person who was the kindest to me that day was (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi. She was on the stage with the president, saw me and came down off the stage, gave me a hug, held me by the shoulders and said, ‘None of us would be in this room if it wasn’t for you.’ And I’ll never forget it. That was one of the highlights of my life and made all that I had sacrificed worth it.”

Mixner recalls going to the Clinton White House before he was banished with so many gay people whispering “Thank you.” He returned to the Obama White House for a Christmas party, invited by America’s first gay Social Secretary—Jeremy Bernard. “They had a little gay bowling league among some of the gay White House staff, the military people. And they were showing me pictures of their husbands,” Mixner says. “What a different world, right? From whispers to pride.”

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