In 1969, most young queers were against the Vietnam War: The fight for LGBT visibility didn’t include a struggle to serve openly in the military.
It does now. The U.S. is actively engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as regular incursions into Pakistan, the country the Department of State calls one of the most dangerous on earth.
One of the many campaign promises Barack Obama made was to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But not only has the president not ended the military ban on openly gay servicemembers, he’s dismissed it all together, passing the buck to Congress, as if he’s unable to issue the same kind of executive order regarding queers in the military as he did a few weeks ago for fuel standards for cars — or like the one issued by President Truman to desegregate the military.
San Francisco gay filmmaker Johnny Symons’ documentary, “Ask Not,” pre-dates Obama’s failure to address the ban since he’s taken office, but it details — heartbreakingly and outrageously — the history of the ban and its impact.
PBS will air “Ask Not” at 10 p.m. June 16 as part of its Independent Lens series.
For those unfamiliar with how the law came about, Symons’ documentary is a thorough explanation of how then-President Bill Clinton was manipulated by the Pentagon and Congress into signing the bill, the wording of which was crafted by Gulf War Gen. Colin Powell.
When Clinton took office, naively believing there would be no opposition to his plan to overturn the ban on lesbians and gays in the military, he was stunned to find the beginning of his first term in office hijacked by the issue. But in 1992, only 16 percent of Americans thought it was acceptable for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 2009 the percentage is vastly different: 70 percent favor allowing openly gay men and women in the armed forces.
Rather than go ahead and overturn the ban through executive order, Clinton was convinced by Congressmembers and aides that he should have the ban studied.
But the results led to the infamous “compromise,” in which gays and lesbians could join the military as long as they didn’t reveal their sexual orientation. But if they or someone else “told,” they would be discharged.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was supposed to make it easier for queers to serve. It has not. There are many outrages related to the ban, and Symons’ painful film details many of them. Drawing on interviews with gay and lesbian servicemembers as well as other members of the military, Symons outlines the impact on national security of a policy that has resulted in the dismissal of 54 Arabic linguists, as well as 12,000 other servicemembers.
Alex Nicholson, a linguist discharged under the law, is typical of who the military is losing to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Nicholson speaks five languages including Arabic, holds a master’s degree in public administration and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in political science. Following his discharge, Nicholson recruited other recent veterans and founded the Call To Duty nationwide speaking tour to ignite debate about the law.
Nicholson poses the film’s salient question: “Do we really care anymore if the person who translates the next piece of crucial intelligence is gay or straight as long as he or she gets the job done quickly and accurately, and helps save American lives in the process?”
To learn more about the film, visit pbs.org/asknot.