Tanya Domi

The Personal Is Political

At thirteen, Tanya Domi was volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The assassinations of Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers shocked and horrified her sense of justice. She attended Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, a school named after the prelate who, in 1938, integrated all the Catholic schools in his diocese. While the public schools were de facto segregated, Cardinal Ritter’s student body was one-third students of color. This was also a time when the Catholic church was active in supporting the Civil Rights and AntiWar movements, both formative influences on Domi’s worldview.

Cardinal Ritter High School Crest

Cardinal Ritter High School was less progressive on issues of gender. Only boys were allowed to run for student body president and only girls could run for secretary. Domi successfully lobbied to change that during her junior year and in her senior year was elected the first female student body president. One of her first actions addressed the lack of representation of students of color in student government. Domi invited the Black Student Union to nominate a representative and an alternate from each class to student government. All these years later, she still takes great pride in her work to foster a more inclusive and representative student government.

Domi describes her father as a racist and violent man who brutalized both her mother and her, if she dared to challenge him. Nonetheless, when her parents divorced in a bitter dispute while she was in college, she felt overwhelmed and flunked out of school. Her confusion and depression were likely exacerbated by her realization that she might be a lesbian, though she did not know that with certainty until  after she was being Mirandized for it.

Captain Tanya Domi

She enlisted in the Army, a utilitarian decision based on the G.I. Bill education benefits. There, she felt she found a home. She excelled and was promoted, moving into increasingly more responsible positions in Army Intelligence and was transferred to Ft. Deven, Massachusetts just in time to get swept up in a widespread investigation of lesbians in the army.

In March, 1974, she went  with five other women to The Other Side, her first gay bar. All of them were reported as lesbians. When she came back to base, she was Mirandized and told she was under investigation. Domi, unlike the usual target, had been a member of the A.C.L.U. since high school, so she knew she had rights. She called a lawyer for herself and the five other women. She survived an 18-month investigation and was found “not guilty” of being gay, mostly because they charged her before she had the chance to do more than think about it. “Did I know I was gay? I was thinking I was gay, but the messages I was getting was really it’s not okay to be gay at all.”

“The thing is, I was really good at it. I was good at being a soldier. The Army gave me a home.” Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military covers the Fort Deven investigation and multiple additional investigations as Domi continued to advance and excel in the military. She was investigated several times but provided no fodder for successful prosecution. Women who were promoted were often accused of lesbianism by less capable men and so was Domi. She was also accused of being a lesbian after she made a complaint of sexual harassment, a common retaliatory tactic. When she was nominated to be an instructor at West Point, she was targeted with yet another investigation and decided she had enough and resigned her commission.

She went to work for Indiana Congressman Frank McCloskey who is best remembered for his advocacy for the Bosnians who were under siege by the Serbs. That was in 1991, and Domi has been engaged in Balkan human rights ever since. She enjoyed her job, but was again forced to resign because her lesbianism would disqualify her from a national security clearance.

Speaking on behalf of gays in the military while working at National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Meanwhile the Iraq War brought the issue of gays in the military to the forefront. Many who served were in the Reserves, a military refuge of sorts, for gays and lesbians who wanted to serve, but feared exposure in full-time service. It was a transformational moment when they came home from service and came out. Domi publicly came out at an action at the White House on Veteran’s Day in 1991.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force hired Domi as the director of their Military Freedom Project. Most of the early leaders against the military ban on gays and lesbians were women because women were disproportionately targeted by the ban. Lesbian-baiting was a tactic employed by men who hostile to women’s service. As a a spokesperson for gays in the military, Domi was everywhere, debating on CNN, testifying in Congress, and organizing in support of lifting the ban. They founded The Gay and Lesbian Veterans of America which is now the American Veterans for Equal Rights.

Gays had been banned from the military since 1941 and Bill Clinton wanted to lift the ban completely. His election raised their hopes, but after he ordered the Pentagon to prepare a draft Executive Order lifting the ban, the military and many in his own party rose in revolt. With insubordination that was only tolerated because it was in service of homophobia, generals and admirals were openly in dispute with the Commander in Chief, writing editorials and giving speeches.  “We lost. It was devastating.” The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell compromise was a disappointment, but it did include an important concession negotiated by Barney Frank–being gay would no longer disqualify someone from a security clearance. “I had personally experienced the burden of that. That’s why I left my job on Capitol Hill. We started a national conversation…and though we didn’t get the job done.  We laid the groundwork. Part of being a citizen is being able to serve your country without discrimination.”

Domi, on the left, when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was introduced.

Domi continued to advocate on Capitol Hill. With Senator Ted Kennedy, she helped draft the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which still has not passed. She worked with Pat Schroeder on her successful effort to advocate for greater inclusion and recognition of women in the military. Currently, she is supporting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in her effort to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act to address the widespread problem of sexual assault in the military.

After NGLTF, Domi went to work for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Her first assignment was in Nepal where they trained women to be election observers for the first time. She was then sent to Haiti to help with the return of Aristide. Her shortest mission was a mere twenty-seven days in Gambia prior to the planned election in 1996. She was there to organize a civil society conference, but within three days of her arrival, the junta changed their minds, dissolved Parliament, arrested Parliamentary leaders and members of the press. Domi’s conference went forward and she was declared persona non grata and deported. The junta leader Yahya Jammeh finally lost in the recent December 2016 election and though he tried to hang on by dissolving Parliament again in January, he is now in exile and his many crimes of oppression are coming to light.

She came back to work for the 1996 Clinton Re-Elect, training campaign managers and campaign spokespeople but gave it up when offered a position working as a Human Rights Officer in Bosnia. This changed her life. Since then she has worked in many countries in the Balkans, as an advisor to ambassadors and as a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the agency implementing the Dayton Peace Accord. “It was a transformational experience. You can’t know what it’s like until you work with people who have survived genocide. You are changed by witnessing resilience against all odds.”

As OSCE Spokesperson at a Coalition Press Information Center conference.

Now, in addition to teaching at Columbia University and working for CUNY, she assists people seeking refugee status in the United States, advocates for accountability for war crimes, providing expert testimony and advocacy. A big focus of her work is pushing back against genocide denial. She is on the Advisory Council of the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey and is writing about the LGBT movement in the Balkans, witnessing the movement and sees its vibrancy as a rebuke and resistance to the ethnic nationalism that inspired the genocide and wars in the Balkans. “Anyone who comes out as gay, they challenge that worldview that people should be segregated and separate.”

Domi continued to actively oppose the military ban on gays in the military until it was finally lifted under Obama. She appears in the documentary Coming Out Under Fire which is available on Vimeo.

Organizing Q & A

As a professor, how does resistance fit into academia?

There is this whole thing about choosing sides. I choose sides. I am very clear about evidence. I am very clear about responsibility, especially as a human rights professor. I don’t believe in the wholesale condemnation of people. Not all Serbs committed war crimes, but those who did should be held accountable. I am well-known for those views and I bring that to my teaching. I believe in choosing sides based on evidence and the truth.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

I use my teaching as a way to inform my students and address these issues from a moral perspective, which I think is foundational to a human rights education. The qualities of compassion and empathy are intrinsic. If you believe in the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you believe in compassion, empathy, and activism in seeking those principles and making them manifest in the world. I am very clear about those principles and how we talk about them. It’s foundational to who I am and I bring it into the classroom.

How does this connect to your work on emerging democracies? 

There is a brutishness to our culture. Trump is a distillation of that brutishness. I saw yesterday that Hillary said there has to be more love in the world. There does. Love can be a strong force in the world. There is a fierceness to love. There is nothing weak about love. It gets feminized by a constellation of men who are unattractive as human beings. One of the words that has come into my vocabulary from the rise of the brutishness is grotesque. The Zero-Sum politics, kicking the poor while they’re done. This is grotesque. The Christian ethics of loving your neighbor have gone out the window. There’s a brutishness that undergirds the ascendant nationalism allied with extreme masculinity.

You see this in authoritarian regimes. When you study authoritarian regimes you see similarities Having studied these regimes…I feel a responsibility to explain and juxtapose how they compare to Trump. How Trump’s actions are analogous to Milosevic, in terms of his intimidation and manipulation of the media. What are authoritarian regimes known for, they’re known for rearranging the government, reorganizing and doing it by fiat without public comment. We are seeing these things in action right now.

Tanya Domi with Alex Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute. Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi.

Many people are still in shock. It’s unbelievable to witness but it’s happening. When I say this is like Milosevic in 1989, people wonder what I am talking about. Putin is an authoritarian. Orban in Hungary is an authoritarian. They had a terrific Constitution and now they have rewritten it and Hungary is  going after George Soros and the Central European University in Budapest trying to put them out of business. They are rewriting higher education regulations in order to get rid of Central European University which is highly regarded in the world.

My experience in the Balkans and working and being part of that and the International War Crimes Tribunal, it shows that these things can happen here and some already have. My concern is our institutions will not be resilient enough to stop it. The one thing we have, though, is a plethora of civil society groups and some are incredibly good. Like the ACLU is incredible right now, but I am concerned about government institutions and their resilience. 

What we are witnessing is the rise of an illiberal democracy – a neoliberal regime led by a populist nationalist. The idea that the guy in Moscow agrees with the guy in DC blows my mind. The idea that America, which has done things that are not good, is turning away from its values. Having worked in the State Department and around the world, I have seen when America acts in ways that are consistent with its principles and values, there is no greater country on the face of the earth…our soft power has always been America’s greatest asset. We have many problems, but when there is trouble in the world, they call Washington for help, not Moscow. The rise of this illiberal democracy, it’s dystopian.  

What are your priorities now?

Showing Up in the Snow Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

One thing I have been doing is giving money, most immediately, to the ACLU.  The other focus, is as a white person, I bear a responsibility for all the violence that happens to people of color in this country which has not stopped. It’s worse now and we are more aware of it. As white people, we bear responsibility for racism, for structural racism, so one of the things I did is join SURJ–Showing Up for Racial Justice. I supported the Black Student Project in Chicago. I am also contributing to resistance on the foreign policy front with Obama Administration people working to address some of the foreign policy problems behind the scenes because our foreign policy is falling apart. I was at the Women’s March. I am trying to show up in the ways I can. There are days I feel weary.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you believe that?

I generally believe it, even if it’s not happening now. We have a big U-turn. What’s so interesting, despite experiencing oppression for much of my life, I am generally a positive person. I believe in the glass half full. When a door opens, I think you should walk through it, but right now there are days I am really stunned by what we are confronted with. I am from that part of the country, the fly-over country, and there’s a reason I live in New York City. It’s challenging to be positive. I live in the City because it’s a global city. One in three are from another country and one in three are children of immigrants. You said the glass is always full because it’s half air, I like breathing this air.

What gives you hope?

All the people I know that persevere, who resist, who are resilient in the face of formidable odds. My friends in the Balkans who come out to face alienation. That happens everywhere, but  it’s really hard in smaller places in the shadow of the government to say I’m gay. The women who survived being repeatedly raped and stand up and say this is my life. I am living my life. People in America who say we resist, the people in the streets of Moscow who stood up over the weekend to resist Putin. People persisting despite the odds.

The odds always seemed against me, but I always landed on my feet thanks to mentors and friends and people who basically shared their life with me and inspired me and that helps live with a certain measure of hope without a doubt.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

People keep saying we need to show solidarity with people who will be targets of the new regime.How do you define solidarity? How do we show solidarity?

Because of my experience with Bosnian Muslims, because they survived genocide, because they fled to this country. They fled Bosnia to eighty countries, though the most have some to the United States. I have been a strong advocate for Muslims. It is important to stand up, to say I am with the Muslims. Be with them, when they protest, go with them. Physically be with them. Show up. Stand up. Be Proud. Confront people who are shaming Muslims, confront and push back on ignorance. One of the ways I have been active is writing…I have written a number of things about genocide, about what happened to Muslims in Bosnia, and have been very outspoken in support of the Muslim community and I will continue to do.

The same thing goes with people of color, with immigrants, with people who are undocumented. This is a very frightening time for people who are undocumented. We have to stand up, we have to be with them, to show up.  Call your member of Congress, but also showing up, supporting in material ways, maybe risking arrest and engaging in civil disobedience.

Domi speaking at the DNC, Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

Another word being used quite a bit is ally? What is an ally? Some anti-racist activists say they need fewer allies and more accomplices? What do you think they mean?

It’s one thing to be a Facebook Warrior and another to show up and risk arrest. These are big issues, situations of great consequence. Some people cannot do it because of their work, if you can’t get arrest, consider contributing to a bail fund or to help provide resources for civil disobedience, get trained as a person who talks to the police. There are thing you can do to support civil disobedience.

Karl Popper has argued that tolerating the intolerant inevitably leads to an intolerant society. On the other hand, John Milton says truth will always defeat error if speech is unrestricted and free. Where do you find yourself?

I been a warrior in arms, a soldier, but I am also a spiritual warrior. I believe in disciplining my mind and heart and being true to my core values and acting consistent with my values. I say I have always been a “bad girl” willing to say what people think and never say and always got in trouble for it. Sometimes being a witness, speaking out, and confronting things straight on is imperative. Sometimes it could prevent someone from being injured or killed. The stuff online is so disturbing and there’s a part of me that says I won’t use my time that way. I can barely tolerate the ignorance and the way they go after women, the profanity, the pejoratizing, the c-word, the b-word. All sense of decorum and respect is lost. There are times when you have to stand up and speak out. It can involve loss of privilege, without a doubt,  but it’s necessary.

As to Milton, I hope so. There’s a part of me that believes that truth will always win out, but it won’t always win out in a timely way. Right now, I feel the truth is being actively suppressed by institutions. It feels like a massive conspiracy against the truth.

Tanya Domi with President Bill Clinton, April 2016 Photo Courtesy of Tanya Domi

It seems like we are walking around in the dark, pushing against boundaries, we can’t see the way forward yet. I can’t read the future, but we have to keep pushing, where there is a wall, there will be door. We have to work with like-minded spirits, to be collaborative, to share, to love each other. I am not pollyannaish at all, but right now, it is imperative that we be with people similar in mind and spirit and stay together in love, respect and solidarity.  That’s the only way we can move forward. Right now we’re in the dark. We have had terrible things in the past, slavery, the civil war, the McCarthy era, but this is the first time in the modern era that we have elected a populist white supremacist who is attacking our institutions of government. I am calling my friends, connecting, asking if they are okay, what’s going on. It’s not revolutionary, it’s the human condition.

What is your response to those who say we must reduce the emphasis on human rights organizing (identity politics) in electoral campaigns so we are more agreeable to working class voters?

Well, everybody needs to recall identity politics is alive and well in the Republican Party. Its called White Men In Charge and they tell us about their identity politics every day. Their campaign was about white supremacy, white men in charge and taking back America for white men. That picture about all the men in the cabinet deciding health care for women, that’s identity politics.

Photos from DADT Protest and civil disobedience at the White House, May 2, 2010.

I don’t believe in the melting pot and all that. We all came from somewhere else, some were brought against their will. Other than indigenous Americans, we were all brought here by choice or against their will. We’re not going to move America forward without all of us. My issue with the election, it’s been rationalized that those voters in three states, and those few voters are who we are supposed to be paying attention to. We’re talking about a shift in the world economy and government and capitalism did not address their security effectively. But it’s a globalized economy and some of them will never get into the economy because it’s an information, knowledge economy and manufacturing is not going to come back the way it used to be. Those miners who stood with him when he signed the new EO, they won’t be mining.

How we want to define the Democratic Party? It’s made up of people of color, gays and lesbians, a whole rainbow of people. Are we supposed to dumb down our politics for white men in three states?  If you understand the globalized economy and this regime does not. I cannot see this regime that does not believe in any science or any research, being able to come up with ways to address the problems of the people. I don’t see their capacity to do so. They ran against the government to destroy the government.

They cannot put us back into a bottle. I am not going back in a closet. People who are brown are always going to be brown. We are all part of America, I am not planning to leave. We have to fight for the world we believe in.

Domi with President Jimmy Carter in Haiti in 1995 | Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

What does justice mean to you?

Justice…there’s justice as in rules in court. There’s reparative justice to give some symbolic payment to victims who survived rape, slave labor, or have been trafficked. But none of those forms of justice will make a person whole who has really suffered. So, I am going back to the “L” word again. By witnessing and speaking out for justice, by acting in solidarity for justice we create justice. It is an act of love. By witnessing, by standing up and saying to my Muslim neighbors, I am with you, I will be with you, I will be in the street with you. I will walk you to the mosque. That is an act of justice. We have to do that in our everyday lives, in big and small ways. There’s not going to be a big action every day, a big march on Washington, or an action at the Supreme Court. That is justice. That is creating justice, a living justice, being with each other.

I was part of the Harlem community, well, I am still part of it. There was a church in the community that had a billboard that said hateful things about gays and lesbians. A number of my friends in Harlem, most of them straight, black women, asked me to join with them picketing this church. They didn’t want their children to walk past this church.  It said really horrible things, such as homosexuals should be killed. So we just kept showing up and showing up and showing up for two years now. The church is now in bankruptcy and may be sold, just by showing up and being with this community, saying we reject who you are, and being with each other was an act of justice. It was an act of love. Love for the community, love for each other. Saying we don’t accept what you are putting out into the world. We don’t want our children exposed to it. We don’t want to live around it. That’s really justice.

That’s what King said and did. That’s what Jesus himself said and did. It’s what we have to do. There’s formal mechanisms of justice and there’s living a life of justice which is acting with fierce love.

What is intersectionality and how is it reflected in your work? How do we pursue authentic intersectional strategies and policies?

I think it’s important who is at the table and who’s making decisions. As an LGBT person we are confronted with lots of identities. For me, I am gay, I am Albanian-American, a veteran, all these different things. It depends how you’re talking about it but with public policy or even if there’s an action, it depends who is at the table, who is making decisions, how are you making decisions, what does the process look like, how do you come to a conclusion.

In terms of this government. There’s no such thing. It’s about whiteness for whiteness. There’s no pretense. It’s good to know there is no pretense.

Intersectionality on policy, consider equal pay for equal work. We know brown women and black women make a lot less than white women and so how do we address that. How do we redress those injustices. You need a consciousness and awareness not only of fact, but also of empathy. With these problems we have, we cannot put them in a hierarchy of decision-making, saying this is more important than that. Bathroom bills are one of those problems confronting our community and a lot of people are saying we don’t want to deal with this right now. It will hurt us to try to address this situation. We cannot put these in a hierarchy like that. These are big things.

There’s a saying, “Nothing about us, without us” that is one way you talk about intersectionality. We have to be at the table.

Domi with Laura Michalchyshyn, Executive Producer of To Russia with Love at Manhattan screening in 2014. | Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

What kind of world do you want to leave for the next generation, or, to put it another way, imagine the world in 30 years, what do you hope it will be like?

I agree that the unfinished business of the 20th century is the equality, dignity and advancement of women and girls around the globe. I was born a girl before I became a lesbian. I will always be a girl. The unbelievable violence that confronts women and girls throughout the world has got to be remediated. It says something about how boys are socialized across the planet. I want a more just world for half the population. That is imperative.

I think of all the destruction we live with right now. Environments, animals, species, human beings…all the degradation of the planet and fellow human beings, the violence visited on women is jaw-dropping and it seems at a fever pitch right now, the levels of violence and denigration in speech and the way men behave.

Whatever is left in my life, whatever years I have left, I want to fight for a better way to treat half the human race. Women deserve to live with dignity and I hope I can contribute to that.

What can we do to achieve that vision?

I think men grow up in this culture, too. A culture that seems to idolize violence is pretty brutal on boys, too. They don’t grow up to be violent without violence being visited upon them. Look at what happened at Penn State, the pedophilia scandal. The Catholic Church and pedophilia. It’s unbelievable. We need to hold the mirror up and say “Look at us,” and ask what it’s going to take. What does Donald Trump represent? What does that say about us? There’s got to advocacy, witnessing, people who stand up at the right place and the right time. There’s got to be accountability and change at the local, state, national, and international level. What is going on here with the men?

People don’t realize it but we live in a patriarchy. The Center for Disease Control has done a number of studies on domestic violence in America. We have an epidemic wave of violence in intimate partnerships. There’s got to be a lot more done on these issues. I am just one person, so it it important I think about what I do. What does it look like? What should I do? What should I join with? What is the most constructive way to contribute to advance my moral values in the world? I am going to be doing some work in Bosnia, at the Post-Conflict Research Center. But here at home, nothing has jumped out I hope I connect with it soon.

With Hillary Clinton Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

What do you want people to know about you, about movement, about organizing?

I have this public persona, people think “Oh, she’s so outspoken, she’s been in the army, she’s so strong, she’s all these things” but you know, I am afraid sometimes. I am afraid, too. I wonder how am I going to go out tomorrow? How am I going to get out of bed? I think if you have the ability to be compassionate and have empathy, there has been some suffering in your life.

A lot of people don’t know I really paid a price in terms of confronting family issues, things like that. I think once you cross the Rubicon and confront at a very young age one the most terrible things that could happen, you are freed up in many ways to go out in the world. So people think she’s so strong to go out into the world, but these are things you’ve got to do. It’s time to do them. 

Courage is the ability to process fear and act. It becomes a very conscious thing. I think it’s interesting, the whole thing about “she persisted”. I have been saying that my whole life. I don’t give up. I may regroup, but I don’t give up. I have persisted my whole life.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Domi

Self-care is part of resistance. How do you take care of yourself?

I work out regularly. I go to the gym. I get body massage and I even get manicures. I take care of myself. I hang out with animals. I have a dog and two cats. I like hanging out with my animals, more than with people sometimes. I come home to my golden retriever and you know, it’s great to be around her.

Where do you go for news and information?  

Because I work in the media, I read everything. The Economist, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post. I like to read Jezebel. I read a number of blogs, including several Balkan news sites, about Europe. I am consummate media and news consumer. It’s more important than ever because there’s so many sources that we question their veracity, the truth. I think if you consuming a myriad of media outlets, you will have better sense of what is true.

I am most excited by the return of the Washington Post. I am thrilled they are back. I also read The Guardian, UK and US editions. The New York Times is not as good as they used to be. They laid off 400 people a couple years ago and it shows. If you read their stuff closely, they made a lot of mistakes. They are very well-resourced, still, and now they have competition with Washington Post, so that is important.

Tanya Domi is the Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a consultant advisor at Freedom House, part of the Survey Team for the Freedom in the World report. She is also  a  faculty affiliate of the Harriman Institute and a Fellow at the Emerging Democracies Institute. She recently chaired the Board of Directors of GetEQUAL, an organization advocating for  and is now on the Advisory Council of LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey. She most recently advised the Hillary Clinton Campaign on foreign policy in Europe and Russia. She worked on two films, To Russia with Love and Coming Out Under Fire. She has worked as a journalist and has been published widely, writing from her expertise on gay rights in the military and foreign affairs and has been published by the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, Kosovo 2.0, and many others. She has also worked on ten asylum cases for gays and lesbians seeking asylum, providing expert testimony. She is currently writing about the LGBT communities in the Balkans and plans to write her memoir in the near future.
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