In 1993, as Congress considered whether to let President Bill Clinton keep his campaign promise to lift the military’s ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, Elaine Donnelly took to CNN to warn that doing so would cost the nation millions and destroy the U.S. Armed Forces. “We don’t feel that the soldiers who defend our country should be subjected to this kind of social experimentation. It’s not fair to them. It’s not good for our national defense. And I don’t think that the Congress is going to stand for it. The American people will not stand for it.”
Donnelly’s concern wasn’t just that non-heterosexual soldiers and sailors would distract their straight colleagues — but that they might bankrupt the national treasury. If gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans were allowed to join, she explained, they would rush to join to receive the “quite generous” medical benefits offered: “If we apply that to those who are at high risk of AIDS — we already know there are 10,000 non-deployable soldiers and their cost of care is about $200,000 each. It’s a very high amount. We’re giving an incentive to apply what is available to heterosexuals to the homosexual population, and that really is an explosive idea.”
Though her dire predictions have proven consistently wrong and her fundraising has declined significantly, more than two decades later, Donnelly and her Center for Military Readiness (CMR) are still leading the fight for discrimination in the military — now working to preserve the military’s current ban on transgender service members.
A Phyllis Schlafly Protégé
Elaine Donnelly got her start as a deputy in the fight against equal legal treatment for women, as a culture warrior under anti-feminist legend Phyllis Schlafly. In the 1970s and 80s, she served as national media chair for Schlafly’s Stop E.R.A. campaign, fighting against ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Among Donnelly’s objections to equal treatment for women: it would mean higher car insurance rates for them. “Passage of a federal bill to sex-neutralize all kinds of insurance would be one of the most costly blunders Congress has ever made,” she told the Senate Commerce Committee at a 1983 hearing, and “the result would be a new form of arbitrary, unfair discrimination against women, the impact of which would fall hardest on the majority for whom individually purchased life and auto insurance policies are a necessity, not a luxury.”
In 1984, Donnelly was appointed to the Reagan administration’s Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services and took part in the committee’s study on whether women should be allowed in some combat roles. Donnelly opposed the committee’s recommended expansion. She continued to speak out against women in combat in the early 1990s, warning that men in the military would “have their whole living environment turned upside down to accommodate women on combat ships, when we know it’s going to hurt readiness and effectiveness.” Though she herself never served in the military, Donnelly criticized “organized feminists who demand a change in the law, but will never go into combat themselves,” and accused the military of “gender norming” — the “awarding higher physical test scores to women in order to promote affirmative action at the military academies and in all branches of the service.”
Among the concerns she repeatedly cited was that women would have children and it would be expensive to care for them, noting “persistent reports of elevated pregnancy rates and child care problems that interfered with military readiness and morale.” She denounced a Naval policy to provide daycare to dependents of sailors as one that would “encourage more single mothers in the Navy.” “When you subsidize something, you get more of it,” she argued, noting that the military should spend money on “new weapons systems,” rather than “these very expensive personnel items.”
As the fight for legal equality shifted from sex to sexual orientation, Donnelly quickly broadened her focus.
An “Office Of Male Bashing”
In 1993, with Schlafly’s support, Donnelly formed the Coalition for Military Readiness, soon after renamed the Center for Military Readiness. The stated mission of the tax-exempt “educational organization”: promoting “high standards and sound priorities in the making of military personnel policies,” and “defending elements of military culture that are essential for morale and readiness in the All-Volunteer Force.” Its advisory board included a who’s who of conservatives including anti-Islam activists Frank Gaffney and David Horowitz, affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and National Review Institute president Kate Walsh O’Beirne.
From 2000 to 2010, CMR received an average of $244,702 in annual contributions and grants. These included more than $300,000 from the Randolph Foundation (funded by the late heir to the Vicks medicine fortune), $16,000 from Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, and $50,000 from the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation (a major religious right funder). For most of this time, Donnelly was the sole employee, receiving an average salary of about $50,000 annually. In some years, a small amount of money was also paid to her husband, Terry Donnelly, for admin work; the group’s executive director Tommy Sears seemingly works without pay. In 2011, Terry Donnelly told the Huffington Post, “We just try to put together enough money for Elaine to do her research,” and that CMR is their sole source of income.
Elaine Donnelly and the Center for Military Readiness did not respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry for this story. But the group has previously said it believes that “equal opportunity is an important consideration in the making of personnel policies, but if there is a conflict between career considerations and military necessity, the needs of the military — and the nation — must come first,” and that the military “should not be used for political purposes or social experiments that needlessly elevate risks, detract from readiness, or degrade American cultural values.” To that end, Donnelly opposed the creation of a Pentagon office for victims of sexual harassment and violence, as an “‘Office of Male Bashing,’ which nuclearizes the war between the sexes.”
In practice, CMR has been most visible in its two losing battles — the effort to keep women out of combat and to keep LGBT people out of the military. The organization’s formation coincided with the original 1993 battle over whether gay and lesbian Americans should be allowed in the Armed Forces. Donnelly and CMR not only opposed the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” compromise from the beginning, they actively argued for a return to the days of outright prohibition.
With George W. Bush in the White House and a Republican Congress uninterested in reconsidering the policy, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell remained firmly in place for the first several years of the millennium. But CMR and Donnelly would face a tougher challenge in trying to keep the law in place under a Democratic House and Senate and with Obama endorsing the idea of letting gays and lesbians serve openly.
In 2008, Donnelly traveled from her Livonia, Michigan home to Washington, DC, to address the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee. At the first hearing on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell since its enactment, Donnelly testified:
I would like to talk about what would happen if you actually repealed this law. The result would be devastating because the military doesn’t do things halfway. And if you say that this is in the tradition, the proud tradition, of civil rights, which we have seen in our history in positive ways, if we say that a sexual minority from here on is going to have special rights, that means that anybody who disagrees is contrary to the zero-tolerance policy. It means that anybody whose attitudes are different from what is advocated by the [American Civil Liberties Union] and the left — the San Francisco left, who want to impose their agenda on the military, those people become unacceptable, and they would have to eventually be forced out of the military.
Raising the specter of having to allow “transgenders in the military,” “HIV positivity,” and of a “sexualized atmosphere in our Armed Forces,” she told the committee it should keep the current rule in place, but should also consider once again asking applicants their sexual orientation to avoid having to train people who are not eligible to be in the military. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote that, “Inadvertently, Donnelly achieved the opposite of her intended effect,” and her comments “had the effect of increasing bipartisan sympathy for the cause.” Then-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), himself a decorated Iraq War veteran, called her suggestion that open service would hurt cohesion “an insult to me and many of the soldiers,” who she was implying “aren’t professional enough to serve openly with gay troops while successfully completing their military mission.”
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart lampooned Donnelly and her argument that a policy change would force service members to accept their gay and lesbian colleagues. “It’s like when Jackie Robinson forced all the racists out of baseball. Think of all the great racist ball players who never had a chance, all because of Jackie Robinson.”
Over the next two years, Donnelly was a constant presence at Congressional hearings on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, providing polling, analysis, and talking points to opponents of repeal. Her group joined with Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Conservative Union, and Concerned Women for America to form the Military Culture Coalition and unite to fight against repeal of the ban. At the coalition’s kickoff, Donnelly again warned: “Repeal and replacement with the proposed ‘LGBT Law’ for the military, implementing the agenda of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered groups who endorsed President Obama’s campaign, would make military life even more difficult and dangerous.” In virtually every article about the subject, Donnelly was quoted predicting dire consequences of any repeal — making her the face of and spokeswoman for the status quo.
In December 2010, in the waning hours of a lame duck Congress, the House and Senate passed H.R. 2965, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. With President Obama’s signature — and a certification the following July that the military was fully ready to implement the change — the 18-year-old ban on openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members finally came to an end.
Donnelly criticized “Congress’ reckless decision” as one that will “impose heavy, unnecessary burdens on the backs of military men and women.” She promised that, “The elitism and arrogance behind these flawed recommendations will cause years of harmful consequences, which our troops did nothing to deserve,” adding: “History will hold accountable every legislator who voted to make it happen.” Obama, Donnelly said, “will own the San Francisco military he has created.”
But Donnelly’s predictions of widespread problems did not come to fruition. Patrick Murphy told ThinkProgress, “Ms. Donnelly’s scare tactics of rampant homosexual misconduct and legions of personnel leaving the force were grossly inaccurate.” He quoted a senior Army noncommissioned officer, who had observed, “We prepared for a major collision with DADT repeal and it wasn’t even a bug on the windshield.”
Rather than acknowledge that the military’s readiness was generally unharmed — or even helped — by the policy change, she told a conservative news site in 2012 that the lack of her predicted exodus was not an indication of success. “Military culture has always been one of obeying orders, and soldiers have been ordered to abide by LGBT law,” she reasoned, speculating that “many troops who would have ordinarily left under such pretenses remain at their posts because of the declining economy and a lack of jobs out there.”
Predictably, with its signature issue now gone, funding for CMR dropped in 2011 and 2012. Contributions and grants dropped to $128,877 and then $111,036 — and Donnelly’s salary fell first to $31,639 and then to $24,950.
In need of a new message, the Center first moved to try to ensure the military not recognize same-sex relationships. In a 2013 press release titled “Obama Betrays Military Families on Eve of State of the Union Address,” Donnelly blasted the military’s decision to give domestic partnership benefits to “unmarried same-sex couples” as “special rights, status, and benefits that are denied to opposite-sex domestic partners and their dependents.” Such “costly benefits,” she warned would “rob even more funds from limited defense budget accounts that are devoted to traditional family support.” But this message too became largely moot last June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional — meaning that same-sex marriages must be equally recognized by the military.
An end-of-year fundraising appeal acknowledged the group’s struggling financial situation and asked for donations to keep the group going in its 20th year. “Our funds are very low right now and our budget is a fraction of resources available to opposing groups. CMR is known for doing more with less, and your investment will go a long way,” Donnelly wrote.
Everything Old Is New Again
But it appears Donnelly and her Center have recently found one more battle to fight. While the 2010 Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal ended the ban on allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans to serve openly, it did not end the military’s ban on transgender service members. Despite the prohibition, transgender people serve at the double the rate of the general population, though they must keep their gender identity a secret or risk being discharged. The higher rates of service could be in part because of the employment discrimination transgender Americans experience in other occupations. Unlike the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, it is currently legal for superior offices to interrogate anyone who does not appear to conform to gender norms.
A March report commissioned by the Palm Center and co-chaired by former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and retired Rear Admiral Alan M. Steinman found no reason to keep the ban. The commission determined, “Medical regulations requiring the discharge of transgender personnel are inconsistent with how the military regulates all other medical and psychological conditions, and transgender-related conditions appear to be the only gender-related conditions that require discharge irrespective of fitness for duty.” This month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called for a review of the policy.
Seizing on a similar issue to its old favorite, the Center for Military Readiness quickly moved to claim its traditional role of chief defender of exclusion. Donnelly has already hauled out the arguments she has used so often against gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members and women in combat — now arguing that transgender inclusion would cost too much and would make people uncomfortable.
In a radio interview, Donnelly dismissed the Palm report and suggested transgender people would flock to the military solely to have their gender reassignment surgery paid for by the government:
Now some people can see an incentive that would be created if young people who for whatever reason are confused about their sexuality [sic] — why, who knows, it baffles me — but if they decide, ‘well I know that my medical benefits are going to be covered,’ and so you join the military, whether going in or maybe later on, and if you know the military has to pay all of these medical benefits, then it becomes like a magnet. Well, the military is not there to be a magnet for people who have personal problems or medical problems or are sexually confused or whatever, it’s there to defend the country.
Donnelly also told the AP that the presence of transgender people might lead to more sexual assaults and violate the privacy of others, “putting an extra burden on men and women in the military that they certainly don’t need and they don’t deserve.”
As with the previous battles, Zeke Stokes, who served as communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and was active in the fight to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, told ThinkProgress that CMR is unlikely to win this fight. “Elaine Donnelly has proven, time after time, that she is no friend of equality — but history is not on her side,” he said. “She’s lost every substantive fight that she has undertaken, we don’t have any reason to believe this one will be different,” he noted, adding that unlike Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the transgender ban is not required by law and can be changed without Congressional consent.
But even if Donnelly has found a new issue for her organization, with a reduced budget and public opinion overwhelmingly on the side of equal treatment for LGBT Americans, it will be difficult for the Center for Military Readiness to find any long-term traction. Autumn Sandeen, a retired 20-year Navy veteran and transgender activist, echoed those comments, telling ThinkProgress that while CMR is the right’s “go-to group” for quotes on the transgender issue, other groups like the Family Research Council now have more sway with the social conservative base — and the Center was ineffective in its earlier fights even when it had more money.
Will Freeman contributed to this report.