by Jessica Carreras
San Francisco-based director Johnny Symons has never served in the military. He’s never fought in a war or received a metal or lost a limb – or a friend – in combat. But like the soldiers who go to Iraq and are instantly hated just for being American, Symons knows what it’s like to be despised for an unchangeable trait: being gay.
In his latest documentary, “Ask Not,” which will be shown at the Reel Pride LGBT Film Festival in Royal Oak on Nov. 15, Symons tells the story of lives affected by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that has prevented gay and lesbian Americans from serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces since 1993. Following activists, ex-military men and women and one gay man who must hide his true identity every day while serving in Iraq, “Ask Not” weaves a disheartening story of one of the many ways in which it’s not OK to be gay in America.
Symons, a Michigan native, has been making films for 15 years, all of them centering around LGBT issues. From lesbian surrogacy to gay parenting to the struggles of gay men in Africa, he has vowed to conquer controversial topics surrounding the gay community. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to Symons, was a logical next step. “…we have this policy that says that, for the (gay) people who are serving in the military, that they can’t be seen. If they make themselves known, then they get kicked out,” Symons explains of his decision to make “Ask Not.” “It seemed all the more important to explore that and particularly in the face of the two wars that were going on, and all the people who were putting themselves out there in the same way that straight people were. I felt that they needed to be understood.”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been hotly debated in recent House and Senate meetings and the repeal has gathered more support in recent years, both from politicians and military officials. Recent estimates say that the bill to repeal the policy has over 100 co-sponsors in Congress – a number that could go up with a now Democrat-controlled House and Senate.
But Symons believes the best way to gain support for a repeal is by film. “I think films can be amazingly effective because they reach a huge number of people at once,” he claims.
Moreover, he thinks films can cause huge shifts in attitudes by causing people to see issues in a way they never have before. “You capture some really compelling footage and you combine it with powerful music and you edit it together in a way that you juxtapose scenes that really get people to think in a new way,” he explains. “People walk away from that experience after watching for a half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half and suddenly they say ‘Wow…I never thought about it that way before.’ Then they go talk to their friends and pretty soon we’re beginning to see a shift.”
“Ask Not,” in trying to achieve that goal, jumps between activist demonstrations in Army recruiting offices, a national tour by a group of ex-military men speaking about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and the compelling story of “Perry,” a gay man who, during the filming of “Ask Not,” buried his gay self and served in Iraq.
The different aspects, says Symons, help to create a full picture of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s effect that doesn’t focus on past experiences, but on the immediacy of the issue. “The simple way to make this film would have been to sit down with a bunch of folks who had served and say ‘what was it like for you when you were in the military serving as an LGBT person?’ and I would end up with these talking heads and…blurry photos of people in camouflage,” Symons says. “And I just thought that’s not going to be a compelling film. It’s not going to be gripping… . It might be emotional. There’d be some sad, poignant moments, but I really wanted to be much more forward thinking.”
As such, a significant portion of the film focuses on protests put on by members of LGBT group Soulforce. The activists travels to several Army recruiting offices and stage a sit-in, claiming that they’re not leaving until they are allowed to enlist as openly gay and lesbian. Eventually, several of them are arrested.
The story of Perry, in contrast, follows a San Francisco man as he says goodbye to his friends and his status as an open gay in favor of joining the military and serving in Iraq. “I think it really highlights the idea of…the injustice of asking someone to go off and do what’s got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world, which is to serve in combat,” Symons says of Perry’s story. “To do that not only stripped of your support system but essentially having to create a whole new identity, to lie about yourself and just how wrong that is for us, as a nation that prides ourselves on democracy and human rights, to expect that of our soldiers.”
Spliced in between personal stories are facts about the beginning of the policy, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Clinton, who originally promised full equality in the military for gays and lesbians, compromised for a policy that he believed would please everyone.
Obviously, he was wrong.
Symons hopes that with a Barack Obama presidency, the tables will turn. President-elect Obama has come out in full support of a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, full adoption rights for gays and lesbians and new laws guaranteeing workplaces and schools free of discrimination against LGBT people.
The question is, will Obama fall in to the same trap that Clinton did? Symons thinks not. “I think President-elect Obama’s going to move a lot more cautiously. I think he’s going to look carefully at what President Clinton did at the beginning of his administration and you know try not to make the same mistakes,” Symons prophesizes. “Even on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell issue specifically, Obama has been much clearer about wanting (to build a) consensus, that’s the word he uses, before changing a policy.”
Still, Symons believes that a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is years away. But with “Ask Not,” he hopes that at least public opinion toward gays in the military will be swayed. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there about who were are and what our lives are like,” Symons stresses. “…we still need to be putting ourselves out there in a real way that people can understand the contributions that we make to society and that we deserve the same rights as everyone else. We have a long way to go on that, and it seems really important that non-fiction, gay-themed films get made and that we all just continue to share our stories.”
4:30 p.m. Nov. 15
Main Art Theatre, Royal Oak
“Ask Not” will be one of many films shown at the Reel Pride LGBT Film Fest at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre from Nov.13-16. For more information, visit http://www.reelpridemichigan.com.