Change Leader: Veteran Zoe Dunning

Innovation + Transformation Work Culture

Retired U.S. Navy Commander Zoe Dunning helped lead the successful campaign to bring LGB civil rights to one of the world’s most complex workforces: The United States military. Today, as a management consultant, she brings those skills to her clients. Read her story.


Zoe Dunning stands beside President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal bill is signed.

By many standards, Zoe Dunning may be considered a leader of one of the most significant changes in American civil rights history. Nearly 25 years ago, with a single sentence, Zoe launched a sequence of events that led her to help transform one of the largest and most complex infrastructures on the planet — the U.S. military — and forever alter the lives of thousands of LGB military service members. After famously declaring, “I am both a naval officer and a lesbian, and I refuse to live a lie anymore,” at a political rally in 1993, she won subsequent legal proceedings and ended up serving for more than 13 years as one of the military’s only openly gay service members. In 2010, after nearly 18 years of activism dedicated to changing hearts and minds, Zoe stood next to President Barack Obama as he made history, signing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Act of 2010 and ending decades of institutionalized discrimination against members of the LGB community.

An Imperfect Fit

Zoe remembers first being attracted to the military in high school, when she met a West Point student through the American Legion civic leadership program known as Girls State. She liked what she heard about service academy life, where students were ambitious, driven, athletic and learned to be leaders — all traits Zoe identified with. What’s more, a service academy was one of the only ways Zoe believed she would be able to finance college — the youngest of seven children, Zoe’s father was about to retire and her mother was unable to work due to health issues. “The military is an opportunity to bring yourself up socioeconomically,” she says, “to give an opportunity for job training, education…all of those things.”

“The moment I learned I was a lesbian I also learned I had something I had to hide, very carefully.”

Zoe was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy with a full scholarship. Although she felt an immediate connection with the military lifestyle and loved the idea of serving her country, her feelings grew conflicted as she came to realize she was a lesbian. She immediately recognized that her identity put her scholarship and her military future at risk. “The moment I learned I was a lesbian I also learned I had something I had to hide, very carefully,” she said in a 2015 TedX talk at Amador Valley High School. “So I spent the remaining years at the Academy and subsequent six years of active duty keeping this a secret. And it was not easy. I was a victim of sexual harassment, of gay-bashing.”

After six years of active service, Zoe was accepted to Stanford Graduate School of Business and transferred from active duty to the U.S. Navy Reserves. At Stanford, she became involved in LGBTQ community and campus groups, yet she says she carefully maintained a separation between her private and military lives. In early 1993, Zoe was asked to speak at a rally to encourage President-Elect Bill Clinton to lift the ban on gay military service. At first, Zoe said no—she was still in the Reserves, there would be too much press and she wasn’t interested in making a public statement about her sexuality. “They said, ‘Would you like to speak?’ and I said, ‘No, no, not at all,’” she says. But then, “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why not? Why won’t I speak at that?’”

The offer continued to gnaw at her. The tipping point came when Zoe realized the very nature of the conversation precluded those most affected — LGBTQ military members — from having any voice in the discussion. “I realized that in all of the media, in all of the conversations we’d been having about the policy on gays in the military, everyone else was talking about it: gay rights advocates, attorneys, congressmen. The only voices that weren’t in the conversation were those who were actually impacted. Gays and lesbians in the military, by definition, were forced to not be part of the conversation. So I went back to my mother, and the lessons she taught me in the short time I had with her, and one of them was that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

As she built up to her speech at the rally, Zoe says her message formed in her mind. When she got up in front of the crowd and uttered her first public statement of her own truth — “I am both a naval officer and a lesbian, and I refuse to live a lie anymore,” — she changed her life, and in turn impacted thousands of other lives, forever.

When she reported for duty the next day, she was put on administrative leave. In the years that followed, she endured a series of military discharge hearings. In the first, the board unanimously recommended her discharge; two weeks later, President Clinton announced Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) and she went through a second hearing under the new policy in 1994. One of the first cases to be tried under DADT, she was allowed to remain in the Navy using a legal strategy the Pentagon later made illegal for any future defendants to use. Between the two hearings, she was notified she had been selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander. “On the one hand, they were trying to kick me out,” Zoe says with a laugh, “and on the other they were promoting me.”

Between hearings, Zoe — now a Lieutenant Commander, Stanford Business School alum and San Francisco Bay Area management consultant — continued to live her normal life. She learned one of her life’s most valuable lessons during this time, when she was frequently working and traveling with a consulting colleague named Ross. When a receptionist who recognized Zoe from her television appearances regarding the DADT controversy thanked Zoe for her activism, Zoe was forced to share the situation with Ross. Ross told her he was a Mormon and admitted he had never before met an LGBTQ person.

“What I want to tell you today about overcoming obstacles…is that it’s about asking and telling. It’s about creating connection. It’s about making a difference with everyone you interact with.”

Despite their differences, Zoe and Ross developed a close connection and over time came to share deep personal thoughts and feelings. The day before Zoe’s final hearing was scheduled, she came home to an unusual bouquet of roses: 11 red and one yellow. Surprised and delighted by flowers on the day before such a solemn event, Zoe read the card: “Some may fail to see the beauty of the yellow rose and remove it from the bunch. Good luck tomorrow. -Ross”

Although Zoe describes a later experience — standing next to President Obama as he signed the repeal of DADT — as one of the biggest honors of her life, this interpersonal connection with Ross may be among the most important.

“What I want to tell you today about overcoming obstacles…is that it’s about asking and telling,” she told students at her TedX appearance. “It’s about creating connection. It’s about making a difference with everyone you interact with. Yes, you can make that difference at the public policy level and take on an institution like the Pentagon. Or you can make a difference in an individual interaction, one on one,” she says.

A Commanding Presence

Zoe and her wife, Pam, celebrating the Supreme Court ruling supporting same-sex marriage.

Today, Zoe leverages her experience as a consultant and facilitator specializing in working with leadership teams to help clarify vision, mission and values and align organizations around them. She provides this for a wide range of clients at Future State, a women-owned, employee-owned management consulting firm with headquarters in Oakland. She also continues to be active in support of veterans and the LGBTQ community. She serves on the advisory board of VetsInTech, an organization that supports veterans transitioning to civilian life gain access to education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the tech sector.

Zoe names standing next to President Obama as he signed the DADT repeal bill as one of the most monumental moments in her life. “For the first time in the history of the United States, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military,” she recalls thinking.

But despite the magnitude of the situation, Zoe — an amateur stand-up comedian in her spare time — couldn’t entirely maintain her decorum as the President signed portions of his signature with 13 different pens (they give them away as souvenirs). “He signed part of the B with one pen, then switched,” Zoe says, laughing. “Then the ‘a’…”

“I’d been working 18 years on this issue, lobbying Capitol Hill, providing free legal services to those impacted. I’d done public speaking, fundraising. Here I am in the moment I’ve been dreaming of — I thought, ‘What could go wrong now?’,” she says. “So in my outside voice I said, ‘Make sure you spell it right.’ To the President of the United States…

“Fortunately, he has a sense of humor and he laughed. I was not dragged off by the Secret Service.”

Zoe is a woman who doesn’t waste words. Much like the single 1993 sentence that ended up helping transform U.S. military policy, one succinct sentence summarizes her life’s work and philosophy: Be your authentic self. “All the people around you? You may think you don’t have as much in common with them as you actually do,” Zoe says. “Everyone carries secrets, everyone carries pain, everyone carries things they want to share. Reach out to one another. Ask each other how you’re doing. Tell them how you’re doing. Tell them about your unique experience. Every one of you: your experience, your ideas, your thoughts? They are your own unique personal strand of DNA. When we seek to understand each other, we all win.”