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Michelle Benecke and the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell



Michelle Benecke

Michelle Benecke is a former Army officer and Harvard-trained attorney who led a decades-long campaign that culminated with the abolishment of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

A first-generation college student who attended the University of Virginia on an ROTC scholarship and later commissioned with the Army as an officer in that combat arms field, Michelle Benecke quickly found her footing in the Army and rose to the rank of captain.

As a female officer in a historically male-dominated combat arms field, every step of Michelle Benecke’s career was marked in an environment steeped in misogyny and sexual harassment. However, through her persistence, talent, and excellent work, Captain Benecke’s military career began to soar, despite the hostile workplace environment.

Law School and LGBTQ Advocacy

After being recognized for her excellence leading combat arms soldiers, the Army offered Captain Benecke a fellowship and full salary to attend law school with the prospect of eventually serving as a military lawyer. Although the offer was appealing at first, Benecke ultimately turned it down because she faced the moral dilemma of knowing that as a JAG officer, she would have to prosecute lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers because of their sexual orientation. Not only did this prospect make Benecke uncomfortable because she believed the policy was discriminatory, wrong, and harmful, the moral dilemma deepened because Benecke was a lesbian.

Instead, Benecke finished her military commitment and pursued law school on her own terms. She successfully passed the rigid admissions requirements for entry into Harvard Law School and, while there, began advocating for an end to the military’s anti-gay policy and documenting its retaliatory use to rout women out of the services, especially those who reported sexual harassment and assault.

Upon graduation from Harvard, Benecke set forth to help the very community that she would have been required to prosecute had she become an Army JAG officer.

She co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which made as one of its goals the abolishment of the military’s discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy— A policy that had the Pentagon discharging an average of three service members every day for being gay.

Her work to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ servicemembers began in earnest upon graduation from law school and soon took center stage in the fight to abolish Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And while she campaigned in the court of public opinion as well as working her way through the legal machinations of Capitol Hill, Michelle Benecke continued to advocate for soldiers in the military LGBTQ community who were facing harassment, death threats, assaults, and other serious harms because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and otherwise.

Michelle Benecke’s Work To Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy

Her work to abolish Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell commenced in 1993, when President Bill Clinton announced Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Bill Clinton’s election had been a hopeful sign amongst the LGBTQ community that perhaps the military would soon progress beyond its discriminatory, anti-gay policies. However, to their sheer disappointment, discrimination under this military policy was codified into law. It would take 18 years and a concerted fight by SLDN and its allies to abolish the law under the term of President Barack Obama.

Then, in September 2011, after working its way through Congress and landing on President Obama’s desk—after decades of hard-fought work and countless numbers of surface members suffering—the discriminatory policy Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell officially ended.

And though Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ended, Michelle Benecke’s advocacy work did not.

After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Since the abolishment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Benecke has remained an ardent advocate for the LGBTQ military community. She is a sought-after speaker and has given hundreds of presentations on the topics of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, women in the military, and other civil rights topics. Moreover, she has worked for all three branches of government and provided lectures and solutions pertaining to Homeland Security, technology, and other ways to improve the government.

No doubt, Benecke is a noted expert in many fields, but when it comes to her place in the history books, it will assuredly be associated with her heroic work abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

The work that she and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network accomplished during their decades-long fight to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is recounted in the book Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell by C. Dixon Osburn, who cofounded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network with Michelle Benecke.

Closing Thoughts

We hope this article was insightful for those interested in learning about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and the women behind its repeal.

Auria Moore has spent 15+ years launching disruptive technologies, creating categories, and bringing groundbreaking data solutions to market. She is the CEO of CLEVR AI and an advisor to several intelligence companies.

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