Photo exhibition sheds light on LGBT servicemembers

Imperfect Gallery is giving the public a look into the impact of the military’s policies on the lives of LGBT servicemembers with the exhibition “Gays in the Military: How America Thanked Me,” featuring photographs by renowned New York-based photographer Vincent Cianni, through March 2.

For the exhibition, and a book on the same subject due out next year, Cianni interviewed and photographed more than 70 servicemen and women from all ranks and departments of the United States military. In 2010, he spent six weeks on the road compiling oral histories and making portraits of his subjects. His photographs show his subjects in frank and familiar depictions.

Cianni said the interviews he conducted were especially revealing about the long and varied challenges LGBTs have faced in the military — and the personal impact of those obstacles.

“They really delve into aspects of their entire life,” he said. “Things that were most shocking was the amount of psychological devastation that occurred. It was really different throughout the decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was physical and sexual abuse. In the 1980s, a lot of it centered around witch hunts and the destruction of careers. Then in the 1990s, with the advent of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ a lot of it was psychological in terms of being part of an organization but not being open about your sexuality, even though it was in a roundabout way accepted. There was this sense of ambiguity that occurred.”

While Cianni’s exhibition predates the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he has conducted further post-DADT interviews with servicemembers.

“None of the subjects photographed except for one are still in the military,” he said. “Many of them have either retired or left the military or were discharged before. One of them is still on active duty and I have a continuing relationship with him. He is the gentleman that is dressed in his Nay whites and his face is obscured by shadow because, at the time, he needed to maintain anonymity. But I have gone back after the repeal of DADT and interviewed and photographed people who were reinstated or reenlisted after the repeal, as well as those LGBT people who joined after the repeal. So I do have interviews that are not represented in the exhibition and photographs that represent the post-DADT era.”

Cianni hopes the project, which will ultimately be archived at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, will preserve the history of the struggles of LGBT service members.

“The point of this project was to look at the history of the ban,” he said. “People just have a tendency of generically calling it DADT, but that was something really specific and in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. I went back to the 1950s and it was an outright ban back then. What I hope for is it to be an archive of the history of the ban on homosexuality and the effects it had on people’s lives. It will be a repository of an aspect of the history of our community. What I really wanted from this project is for people to get a sense of the pervasiveness of the effects, whether it be psychological, career, emotional or physical, that it has on a wide number of people.”

Imperfect Gallery presents “Gays in the Military: How America Thanked Me,” through March 2, at 5601 Greene St. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/ImperfectGallery or www.vincentcianni.com.