Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Ask Not" Challenges Stereotypes About Gay Servicemembers

I finally had the opportunity the other night to watch the Johnny Symons documentary Ask Not on gays serving in the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Last summer the guys at Gay Patriot and I had the privilege of doing a podcast interview with Symons and a few of the "stars" of this film, including Jarrod Chlapowski, Alexander Nicholson and Al Steinmann of Servicemembers United.

Where Symons does his best work in this film is with the excellent interviews of gay veterans. One of the finest examples is with "Perry", a gay soldier serving in Iraq. Because of the DADT policy his identity had to be concealed but he had some of the most moving scenes in the film, including at the end. The scenes with Chlapowski, Nicholson, Steinmann and Fred Fox during their Call to Duty Tour were compelling, especially with their personal stories of military service as well as their efforts to engage the public on repealing the ban against gays. If this documentary convinced me of anything, it is that the work of these men to bring about change through constructive dialogue while maintaining the obvious respect they have for the military, which I share, has a far greater chance of success than ill-advised publicity stunts. More on the latter in a moment. While all of these veterans had very interesting stories I found myself most identifying with that of Fox, probably more because although I do not know him and we served in different branches, our enlistments were roughly at the same time in the early 1990s. I’ve been impressed with Fox from previous interviews I’ve listened to and the material in this film reinforced this. I enjoyed the "personal stuff" about all of these men and it strengthened the documentary in putting a human face to gay veterans, as well as challenged ridiculous stereotypes.

The weakest portions of this documentary were where Symons included footage of events with Soulforce protesting the ban against gays. The anger and need to "take action" I can understand but the effectiveness of their efforts is highly doubtful. In the film they came across as spoiled brats with little or no understanding of the military, let alone respect for the organization they claimed to want to serve in. The most glaring example of this is in one scene where Soulforce protestors take advantage of a Marine recruiter who treated them well, only to have them "invade" his office when his back was turned. All of this was done just so they could get arrested to make their point. Putting aside the stupidity of inflicting these kinds of stunts on persons having zero control over the policy, Congress makes the laws after all and not the military, if this Marine recruiter had any sympathy for gay servicemembers before this incident one wonders how their poor behavior may have changed that. I could have done without just about all the scenes on Soulforce, with the possible exception of the brief interview of one female Navy veteran discharged for being a lesbian. I would have liked to see her interviewed more, like the others were, outside of the Soulforce nonsense. Barring that, Symons should have found other gay veterans to interview who are also working against the ban like Pepe Johnson of Integrity in Service. This would have been more in keeping with the rest of this film and far better than the material with Soulforce. Gay veterans instead of gay activists.

Probably the most surprising to me watching this documentary was how quickly the anger I had at former President Bill Clinton (D), the spineless coward who signed DADT into law, and Congressional politicians from the early 1990s, like former Senator Sam Nunn (GA-D) and his asinine "investigations", came rushing back. The nonsense from DADT proponents in this film only made it hotter. Yet where Symons excelled, thanks to many of the "stars" mentioned above, was taking that anger and focusing it towards constructive means. Overall I’d say this documentary was well-made and I'd recommend that anyone interested in this topic, see it for themselves.

(this is also posted over on Gay Patriot)