Saturday, October 18, 2008
"Ask Not": a documentary about "don't ask don't tell" and gays in the military: would the ban be lifted if Obama wins?
On the way in on the Metro to the Reel Affirmations screening and SLDN panel discussion of “Ask Not” at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, I happened to sit by a college student who said that the train (quite late) had been halted when the cops had to arrest someone for getting on the tracks. The ride, barely arriving on time, was an adventure, as toward the end he said something like, “President Bush never asked for any sacrifice after 9/11, and that is a moral outrage.”
That fits into the movie, the first theatrical documentary on the current “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, which has been federal law since 1993. There have been a few TV films (and in the 1990s Servicemembers Legal Defense Network had screened the black and white “Coming Out Under Fire” based on Berube’s book). But this is the first film (other than perhaps a History Channel documentary mentioned below) that chronicles the history of the policy, particularly as it unfolded in the angry Congressional hearings held by Senator Sam Nunn in the first six months of 1993. Senator Warner is shown visiting an aircraft carrier and quizzing sailors; they omitted the disgraceful lowcrawl on the submarine “Hammerhead”, or the Norfolk hearings where Senator Strom Thurmond bellowed about homosexuality’s being “unnatural”. The film shows a brief excerpt from President Clinton’s July 19, 1993 speech at Fort McNair where he announces his “honorable compromise.” This part of the film, perhaps twenty minutes, more or less covers the same ground as my own “Chapter 4” in my own 1997 book “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” and my own text is (free access) here. The film shows a clip from the propaganda short “The Gay Agenda” produced by the religious right during the debate. The film also quotes Northwestern University military sociology professor Charles Moskos, who originally helped author "don't ask don't tell" out of the concern over "privacy" in the barracks, but who seems to have changed his mind since 9/11, and who has advocated a draft along with ending the gay ban and replacing "don't ask don't tell" with more reasonable internal conduct rules.
The director is Johnny Symons, and the production company is Persistent Visions, with the film website here The company website is this (note the hyphen). The company has two other documentaries about surrogates and gay fathers, “Beyond Conception” and “Daddy and Papa”. This new film runs 73 minutes and is presented in the smaller 4:3 aspect ratio. The company communicated at the screening that a DVD should be available soon.
Part of the film presents the demonstrations by a group called Soulforce, and the Equality Ride, and a young Minnesotan named Jacob Reitan (link). In a demonstration in Roseville, MN at a national guard recruiting center, a few people are arrested for refusing to leave after trying to enlist and then “telling.”
The film also has several scenes in Iraq, one with Army night vision, another with soldiers lounging in quarters, and several on-location shots of the streets of Baghdad.
One of the soldiers, discharged from the military, is on a Columbia SC radio show, taking calls, including one from a right wing called who says that the military should be reserved for “men who are men.”
The legal concepts behind the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” law are tricky. The law was passed on Nov. 30, 1993 as part of the Defense Authorization Bill. (Go here at Stanford University Law School’s site for the text.) The law views a statement that one (in the Armed Forces) is gay as creating a “rebuttable presumption” that one has a “propensity” to engage in homosexual acts. Curiously, it views an attempted gay marriage as such a “statement” even though in 1993 the gay marriage debate was only in the beginnings. The military is not supposed to ask, but any statement that gets back to the military can be grounds for discharge. This has led to witchhunts in some commands, fought by SLDN for 15 years now.
At one point, in a scene where the Equality Bus is driving through Colorado, one of narrators criticizes the naïve idea that “the ban doesn’t matter because it just means I couldn’t get drafted if they brought the draft back” as for the war on terror. Instead, the film takes the position that if you want equal rights, you have to be able to share equal responsibility and even equal risk in defending the freedom of others. The 1993 law, in fact, could be taken as suggesting that gays are somehow “morally unfit” to be placed in any situation where forced intimacy with other males is necessary for some overriding societal necessity. That kind of reasoning has been used in the past to try to fire gay teachers (the Briggs initiative in California in 1978) or exclude gays from fire departments (in New York in the 1970s when anti-discrimination laws were proposed). In my own case, I was expelled from the College of William and Mary in Nov. 1961 for admitting, under duress, to the Dean of Men on Thanksgiving weekend that I was a “latent homosexual” (which might not, in the literal language of the 1993 law, trigger the “rebuttable presumption” that homosexual conduct takes place, in a military application). My reputation, according to the “moral” standards of an era emerging from McCarthyism and about to undergo the Cuban Missile Crisis, would be sundered. I would take the draft physical and go from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A and eventually be drafted and serve without incident from 1968-1970.
One point stressed in the film is that a number of those soldiers discharged were linguists, and military intelligence apparently failed to translate an obvious warning of the attack in Arabic the day before 9/11. (If that’s true, it’s just possible that without DADT, 9/11 might have been prevented.) Another point is that during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, discharges have dropped as the military needs its forces.
In one sequence, three ex-soldiers visit a college ROTC unit in Georgia on their tour to educate about the ban, and they see a D&C exercise where the soldiers are chanting songs with the "f" word (derogatory of homosexuals) in the cadence. Use of epithets against any group is supposed to violate regulations. The film documents President Truman's executive order integrating the military in 1948. It doesn't cover the recoupment or Solomon amendment problems for students and campuses.
Aaron Belkin, from the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spoke, particularly about the success of lifting the ban in foreign militaries. I visited Dr. Belkin in February 2002 on a personal west coast trip after my own "retirement."
After the film, SLDN hosted a one-hour panel discussion (announced on their Frontlines blog), including Darren Manzella, who was on CBS “60 Minutes” last December and was retained for a long time after a partial self-outing (my previous story on this), and managing attorney Emily B. Hecht. Based on questions from the audience, it sounds as though the Pentagon is getting prepared for the likelihood of a world in which gays are allowed to serve in a manner similar to the policies in effect in Britain or as proposed by the Rand Corporation study in 1993 (a “code of military professional conduct”). Hecht mentioned that servicemembers discharged after 6 years in lose half of their separation benefits if the reason for the discharge is homosexual admission, but such discharges are "honorable." Barack Obama has said that he supports lifting “don’t ask don’t tell” and replacing it with a statute allowing gays to serve (which is necessary, because otherwise the old administrative policy of “asking” based on the 1981 “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” letter would return). However, it could take a whole term to get the Meehan bill (HR 1246, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act through Congress. There is no Senate bill yet.
One question in the discussion is whether any kind of re-segregation by sexual orientation could occur. This idea had been proposed, somewhat whimsically, in 1993 (even four sets of latrines and barracks). No way, everyone says. There was (after dismissal of "foxhole phobia") mention that women have decreasing restrictions on combat duties allowed, but that there was no biological or fundamental reason that such a restriction could apply to gay men.
Probably the largest book on the military gay ban is "Conduct Unbecoming" by Randy Shilts, from St. Martins in late 1993. The History Channel aired a one hour documentary "Gays in the Military" in 2000, with the stories of many other people, including Keith Meinhold, Michele Benecke (who would head SLDN for several years with Dixon Osburn) and murder victim Barry Winchell (in the Showtime film "Soldier's Girl" (2003)).
As John F. Kennedy said on Jan. 20, 1961, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I think in the past John McCain did practice "country first." I'm not as sure today.