C. Dixon Osburn ( right ) with Bleu Copas, Arab linguist discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Photo by Amy Moseley
C. Dixon Osburn helped to change the priorities of the LGBT community and the opinions of the nation during the 13 years that he served as executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) . One week after stepping down, he spent part of a brilliant spring afternoon in Georgetown discussing that history.
The year was 1993 and Osburn was just out of law school, volunteering with the Clinton/Gore transition team, with 'a passion for reinventing government—leaner, meaner, more efficient government.' He thought he might end up as part of the new administration.
Clinton's announcement in January that he would lift the decades-old ban on gays serving in the military sparked massive opposition from within the senior levels of the Pentagon and Congress, then under Democratic control. National gay organizations responded by forming a unity coalition, the Campaign for Military Service, to try to counter the growing hysteria.
Osburn began to volunteer there and worked closely with Michelle Benecke, another attorney who had served as a captain in the U.S. Army prior to law school. In July, when Clinton announced the policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' ( DADT ) and tried to sell it as a 'compromise' that would allow gays to serve in the military so long as they were quiet about it, there was much grumbling within the community but little they could do about it.
As the dust from that fight settled, Osburn and Benecke formed SLDN to provide direct legal aid for soldiers affected by the policy and lay the groundwork for its repeal. Benecke agreed to be co-director for six months to get it going; she stayed for six years.
'People ask, 'How did you start it?' I say, 'Very naively,' Osburn replies with the self-deprecating humor that has helped to make him so effective. Another veterans' group loaned them office space for three months and, after that, they were on their own.
'Had you told me 13 years ago you are going to run a $3 million organization, and galvanize a community on this issue, and get a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [ of Staff ] to speak up, I would have said you're crazy,' he said. 'But it's been a blast.'
The challenges often were as great within the community as they were beyond it. Neither marriage nor the military were at the top of the gay agenda in the early 1990s, and for many LGBT leaders and organizations, they weren't even part of that agenda.
Much of the community leadership had come from the white middle or upper class and had been part of or strongly influenced by the anti-war and feminist movements. Marriage was seen as patriarchy to be torn down, and there was general antipathy to the military. They did not understand that it was a way out of a future of dead-end jobs and small-town homophobia for a great number of lower income youth, perhaps disproportionately LGB.
But Osburn saw the military question as government discrimination against its own citizens. He calls it one of the most important issues affecting the community because 'it impacts more people than anything else.'
SLDN 'was very entrepreneurial, very scrappy,' Osburn said. 'We really did burn the midnight oil, scrapping together the money and slowly growing, thinking very carefully about what we could do with the funds. It was primarily helping soldiers and trying to educate the public.'
They kept the pressure on the Pentagon, highlighting violations of its own policy within the ranks, and putting human faces to the travesty of the policy—the destruction of careers and, in the case of Barry Winchell, his brutal murder at the hands of a homophobe, which the Army at first tried to deny.
'All of a sudden you had a debate going about what Don't Ask Don't Tell really means and does,' says Osburn. 'Over 13 years, public opinion shifted dramatically in our favor—from a bare majority in 1993 in our favor to 79 percent today.' Little of that would have happened had it not been for SLDN.
The next phase in SLDN's evolution came in the wake of the Lawrence decision in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining state sodomy laws.
'We realized that we now had the tools again to go after the systemic problem through litigation. At the same time we said, if we are projecting that Congress is changing, it's time to get something back into Congress.'
A measure to repeal DADT was introduced in the House during the last session and again this year. A hearing will be held this summer. Unfortunately, its champion, Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., will be retiring in July to take up an academic post, and the search is on for a new leader in the fight.
Osburn predicts it will take two more elections before Congress will repeal the ban; 'I don't think my 20-year prediction [ made in 1993 ] was too far off.'
Looking back at his 13-year tenure he says that fundraising 'has never been the bane of my existence. I'm just enormously grateful that so many people have opened up their wallets for us. It amazes me, it surprises me, and it humbles me that they do that.
'The satisfaction has been in getting the giant—the Pentagon—to bend. The fact is, we were eking out these little gains from this giant, monolithic organization. I realized that the strategy that we had in place, chipping away, was really working. I think that every step we have taken has been the right one.'
That is reflected by the changing attitudes towards gays within the military itself. Researcher Charles Moskos conducted a survey during the 1993 debate on DADT that showed that only 13 percent of soldiers approved of allowing gays to serve openly. 'The Zogby poll in December showed that 73 percent were comfortable with gay Americans,' Moskos said. 'And, based on that poll, it didn't matter if they were Republican, conservative, Southern, religious.'
'I think that Secretary [ of Defense Robert ] Gates would agree: it's not a matter of if but of when the ban will be repealed; it's just a matter of time.
Osburn says that it was just time for him to leave. He told the board of directors that the end of March. He has agreed to be available for the next six months as a consultant during the transition.
He does not know what will come next. 'When you are working 12-14-hour days, you don't have time to de-clutter your mind and think long term personally. I realized that I needed to de-clutter in order to think it through' and decide what he really wants next.
Osburn, 42, retains a strong love of politics and policy, and does not rule out at some point heading up another organization, working for a foundation or running for political office.
He also remains flexible regarding location. Staying in the Washington area is a possibility, but so is a return to California, where Osburn attended school and his partner of four years was born and raised. But for now, he is enjoying 'de-cluttering' and spring.