Saturday, May 9, 2009

Documentary on Queers and the Military Airs in June

“Ask Not” Focuses on Human Costs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”


Photos, top to bottom: Ben Gomez, Col. Stewart Bornhoft (ret.)

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Though the local PBS affiliate, KPBS-TV (channel 15, cable 11) isn’t scheduled to show it until June 21, at 11 p.m. (the rest of PBS is scheduled to show it June 16), the San Diego Public Library held a preview screening of the Independent Lens TV documentary Ask Not May 3. Made by openly Gay filmmaker Johnny Symons, Ask Not deals with the U.S. military’s continuing exclusion of open Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals from service under the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy enacted by Congress in 1993. Ask Not focuses on the human costs of the policy as well as the potential consequences for America’s national security, and also depicts two campaigns aimed at building public opposition to the policy and pressuring Congress to reverse it and allow Queers to serve openly in the U.S. military.

The library’s screening of Ask Not featured two live guests who are active in the campaign against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” One was Ben Gomez, a veteran and current board member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center who said he quit the military when he met his current partner, Jeffrey, and decided it was more important to live an open life as part of a Gay couple than to continue to serve. The other was retired colonel Stewart Bornhoft, a colleague of Gomez’s in the United Veterans’ Council of San Diego County and a strong opponent of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Ask Not mixes new footage with archival scenes, including shots of President Harry Truman defending his 1948 executive order ending racial segregation in the U.S. military and demanding that African-Americans serve alongside white servicemembers instead of in separate units. Director Symons effectively contrasts Truman’s forthright stand with Bill Clinton’s wimp-out on the similar issue of lifting the ban on Queers in the military — even though Truman, who issued his order when he was facing an election instead of just after he’d won one, was in a more precarious political position — and suggests that had Clinton shown the guts and determination Truman did, this issue would now be ancient history and Queers would be serving openly in all branches of the U.S. military. The film also shows a clip of professor Charles Moskos, who not only wrote the first draft of “don’t ask, don’t tell” but even coined the name.

One sequence showing part of the campaign by military leaders and conservative lawmakers to keep the ban on Queers in the military in place — the infamous scene in which U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) brought cameras inside a ship to show the close quarters in which sailors lived, and suggest that straight male sailors in this environment couldn’t function if they knew there might be Gays in their midst — hit Gomez especially hard. “I was in the room on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy when that scene was filmed,” he recalled. Gomez said he was terrified at the possibility of being exposed, and also disgusted at the way he was being used as a living prop to uphold a policy aimed at booting him and his fellow Gays out of the military.

“The military is the only federal agency that discriminates” against Queers, Gomez said. Every other federal employer — including the FBI, CIA and ultra-sensitive National Security Agency (NSA) — is covered by a non-discrimination policy. (So much for the argument, often heard during the Cold War, that Queers couldn’t be tolerated in sensitive positions involving national security because they’d be vulnerable to being blackmailed into turning traitor and giving away intelligence information or other crucial secrets to an enemy.)

Citing a claim made during the film that the military is falling short of its recruitment goals — it was when the film was shot but now, probably due to the recession, the military is meeting and even exceeding its quotas — Gomez pointed out that the military has lowered its standards, letting in drug abusers and even convicted felons, while continuing to exclude open Queers. “There is a recruiting station in the middle of Hillcrest, in our own neighborhood,” Gomez lamented, “and they’ll take a felon but not one of us. I don’t see how you can question the patriotism of any American.”

Indeed, one of the activist groups depicted in Ask Not, the Right to Serve Campaign, directly targets recruiting offices. Their members organize civil-disobedience actions, going into recruitment centers, offering to sign up, then telling the recruiters they are openly Gay or Lesbian. When they are turned down, they either occupy the recruitment office or block the entrance to it, sometimes chaining themselves in place, until the recruiters call the authorities and have them arrested. Right to Serve co-director Jason Reitan appears in the film, comparing his group’s actions to the sit-ins staged by African-American college students at white-only lunch counters in the South in the early 1960’s and saying they feel empowered by committing civil disobedience and getting arrested.

The other organization profiled in the film is an above-ground group named Call to Duty, which staged a nationwide tour in 2006 that featured openly Queer veterans speaking about their experiences and demanding the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They didn’t always go to friendly audiences, either; in the film the members of Call to Duty are shown speaking at a Georgia military school right after they’ve seen cadets on drill chanting homophobic slogans as part of their cadences. The Call to Duty tour finished at UCSD but many of the participants stayed together and organized a new group called Servicemembers United, whose Web site,, promotes Ask Not and its upcoming showings on PBS.

According to Bornhoft, Americans are ready to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” and permit open Queers to serve in the U.S. military. The online study guide for the film cites a Washington Post/ABC poll from 2008 that says 75 percent of Americans support allowing open Queers to serve — up from 44 percent when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was passed into law in 1993. Within the military itself, Bornhoft said, “polls were taken of people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that asked two questions: do you think there are any Gays in your unit, and do you think that would be a detriment? The people who answered the first question no answered the second question yes. The ones who did know Gay people in their units went on to say, ‘And it wouldn’t be a problem.’”

Bornhoft also pointed out that one of the most horrible consequences of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is that, in an institution based on “duty, honor, country,” it not only allows but actually requires Queer servicemembers to lie about an important part of who they are. “’Honor’ involves telling the truth,” he explained. “We were taught never to be satisfied with a half-truth. This law mandates that you lie about who you are. There are 65,000 Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people on active duty with the U.S. military and one million veterans.” Bornhoft argued that once Queers are allowed to serve openly in the military, the anti-Queer stereotypes in the ranks will break down and straight servicemembers will accept their Queer colleagues as fully equal. He said that “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was sold as a way to preserve “unit cohesion” from the alleged threat posed by openly Queer people in the ranks, actually destroys unit cohesion because “the basis of unit cohesion is that if you tell me something, I can believe it.”

One nagging issue left over from the Queer rights movement’s historic roots in the political Left is that many Queers have strong anti-war, anti-military convictions and are willing to accept equal service as a civil-rights issue but don’t think it’s all that important. The question came up during the post-film discussion at the library screening, when one audience member said he didn’t think the U.S. has fought a morally justifiable war since 1945 and Queers should question whether they want to be part of an institution whose role is as a worldwide enforcer for U.S. imperialism.

Ironically, filmmaker Symons said he had similar doubts before he made the film. “One of my earliest childhood memories is marching in a protest against the Viet Nam war,” Symons wrote in an essay in the online discussion guide. “As an adult, I was no more inclined to embrace the military than I had been as a child. But after I realized I was Gay, I witnessed the pervasiveness of homophobia and became actively involved in fighting for the same values that the military strives to uphold — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … Stories of injustice are prevalent, but the saga of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ struck me as a particularly blatant example of institutionalized discrimination. … The military will admit Gays and Lesbians, and send them into combat, but only on the condition that they hide an essential part of their identities.”

Indeed, perhaps the most poignant story told in the film is that of “Perry” — not only is his real name not used, but his face and all exposed parts of his body are deliberately blurred whenever he’s shown — who left an openly Gay life in San Francisco to enlist in the Army and was sent to Iraq. “Perry” says in the film that — contrary to the tales of other Queer servicemembers and veterans, who describe quite active sexual subcultures within the U.S. military despite the omnipresent fear of discovery, court-martial and discharge — he was too scared even to seek out other Queer servicemembers as friends. What’s more, he says that once he was actually involved in combat, especially the brutal house-to-house fighting of urban warfare in Iraq, his sexual orientation slipped from the forefront of his consciousness and he became just another grunt, concerned only about surviving and doing his job.

Responding to the question of why Queer activists who are also anti-war should fight for the right of Queers to serve openly in the U.S. military, Bornhoft said, “Those people who have different views from yours ought to have the right to serve. Some people are motivated by the educational benefits. Some want the right to serve their country. Some want to join to get out of the situation they’re in” — a reference to the fact that for many working-class people, the de-industrialization of America has left the military as virtually the only form of upward mobility still available to them. Neither the film nor the speakers mentioned that many people join the military not knowing they’re Queer, but find that out when they’re surrounded by people of their own gender in heavily sex-segregated environments and realize they’re drawn to some of them, emotionally and sexually.

One aspect of the issue discussed more extensively in the discussion than in the film itself is the transformation the U.S. military is going through as it attracts more and more women, and gives them greater responsibilities. Ironically, some of the sexual tensions supporters of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy cited as reasons to keep open Queers out have surfaced among heterosexual servicemembers as the military becomes more gender-integrated. What’s more, women servicemembers have frequently complained of being sexually harassed or even raped by their male colleagues — and their commanders have often either refused to do anything to stop it or have actually taken the side of their harassers or rapists.

Women in the service are also subject to so-called “Lesbian-baiting,” according to the study guide for the film. “A woman can be accused of being Lesbian in retaliation for a poor performance review of a man under her command; when she spurns a man’s sexual advances; or when she accuses a man of sexual harassment,” the guide explained. Perhaps because the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy provides this convenient cover for sexist men in the military to eliminate women, a disproportionate number of Queer-related discharges are of women. In 2007, women made up 14 percent of total Army personnel but 46 percent of all members discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The same year, 49 percent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” discharges in the Air Force were of women, though they made up only 20 percent of the service’s total personnel.

Ask Not shows the human cost of “don’t ask, don’t tell” not only in its effect on its victims but on the national security. About 12,500 servicemembers have been kicked out under “don’t ask, don’t tell” since the policy was enacted in 1993, and every year about 4,000 servicemembers whose enlistments are over choose not to re-up because they no longer want to be forced to stay in the closet under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What’s more, hundreds of servicemembers — including some of the people who went on the Call to Duty tour — have critical intellectual skills needed for an effective response to terrorism, including skills in Arabic, Farsi and Korean.

The May 4 Los Angeles Times reported on a pilot program to recruit documented immigrants to the U.S. who have these language skills and promise them a fast track to U.S. citizenship if they enlist — but, according to the article, they’ve been far more successful in recruiting speakers of Chinese, Korean and Indian languages than people who know Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and other languages spoken by people in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the Call to Duty tour members interviewed in the film said he was convinced the U.S. could have learned of the 9/11 attacks in advance and prevented them if the military weren’t so concerned about discharging Queer Arabic speakers.

Much of the effort of various organizations concerned with this issue is going into supporting a bill in Congress, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1283), sponsored by Congressmember Ellen Tauscher (D-California). The bill would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and apply the same policy of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation to the military that exists in the rest of the federal government. It would also allow people previously discharged from the military for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell” to re-enlist without penalty, and would allow military authorities to discipline servicemembers for same-sex sexual harassment under the same policies that now apply to heterosexual harassment. H.R. 1283 does not cover gender identity.

Locally, San Diego County’s two Democratic Congressmembers, Susan Davis and Bob Filner, are both on board as co-sponsors of H.R. 1283. Though there are Republican House members on the co-sponsor list, none of San Diego’s Republicans have signed on. Part of the grass-roots effort of the local groups is to get the San Diego City Council to go on record supporting repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a position all California’s other major cities have taken but one which, given San Diego’s large active-duty population and historic ties to the military, would be especially significant from here. One argument local advocates are hoping would be effective not only with the City Council but local Republicans is the cost issue. Estimates of the total cost of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — both the enforcement of it and the expense of training people to replace those discharged under the policy — range from $191 million to $361 million since 1993, and one estimate sets the price tag of the policy as $35 million per year.

One big question mark is the position of President Obama. Like President Clinton, he promised during his campaign to end discrimination against Queers in the military. Since he was elected, he’s been silent on the issue. “There’s been evidence from Obama’s administration that he would support it,” said Gomez, “but he’s pushed it down in priority levels. This is not one of his administration’s priorities right now.” Since the law that enacted “don’t ask, don’t tell” prevented the President from ending the discrimination by executive order, activists are concentrating on moving Congress and getting a majority of House members to co-sponsor H.R. 1283 (right now they’re at 140 co-sponsors and they need 218), then winning at least three Republican Senators to make sure the bill can be debated without being filibustered.