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Milwaukee native is a history-making advocate for LGBTQ rights in the military

Zoe Dunning was the only openly gay person to serve in the military for 13 years.
Zoe Dunning Headshot
Posted at 4:34 PM, Mar 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-16 20:17:09-04

MILWAUKEE — A woman born and raised in Milwaukee is a trailblazer for LGBTQ+ individuals in the military and beyond.

"I lived on the east side of Milwaukee until I was about 8 years old, and then we moved to Whitefish Bay and I graduated from Whitefish Bay High School in 1981," said Zoe Dunning.

Dunning is the daughter of military parents.

"Both of my parents, believe it or not, served during World War II. So, it was very unique to have a mother who served in the Army. She served in the Women's Auxiliary Corps," she said.

In the 1980s, Dunning joined the Naval Academy. She would go on to become an officer and serve during the first Persian Gulf War. It was a journey that came with personal challenges. While in the Academy, Dunning realized she was a lesbian.

"I had to lead this double life of my personal life and then my military life," she said. "I couldn't let them intermingle or else I would risk getting kicked out."

Dunning eventually left active duty. She was overwhelmed by the secret she was being forced to keep. She went on to serve in the Reserves while continuing her education at Stanford Business School. At that time, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Don't ask, Don't tell Bill into law. The law allowed members of the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the military, as long as they hid their true identity.

"People don't realize that Don't Ask Don't Tell meant you couldn't tell anyone. You couldn't tell your mom, you couldn't tell a Chaplin," said Dunning.

As that law became a reality, Zoe attended a political rally and decided to come out.

"I said, 'I'm both a naval officer and a lesbian and I refuse to live this lie anymore,'" said Dunning. She said that then ignited a two-year legal battle.

Dunning was one of the United State's first 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' cases. She won her case.

"That set me up in a situation where I essentially was the only openly gay member of the military for the next 13 years," said Dunning.

From that day on, Dunning has been an advocate for LGBTQ rights in the military and beyond.

She even stood next to former President Barack Obama on the day 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was repealed.

"I want those who are watching this to know that we've only been able to openly serve in the military for 12 years," said Dunning.

Today, while she continues to be a voice for those who have been serving in silence, she says this conversation extends beyond our military with states such as Tennessee and Florida passing what many call "Anti-LGBTQ" bills.

"There are a lot of rights and benefits and things that are being stripped from trans citizens, also from trans youth in particular - access to gender-affirming schools, behavioral health issues, not even being able to talk about in school like we hear about in Florida with the Don't Say Gay law," said Dunning.

Zoe Dunning is a Milwaukee trailblazer who is fighting for equality for all.

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