On June 15 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, a business networking group hosted a screening of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” a documentary named for the law enacted during the first Clinton administration that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces. The screening, during a month-long celebration of gay pride events, occurred as some federal lawmakers have called upon Congress to overturn the ban in order to redress the military’s overextended troop deployments, particularly in light of recent recruitment shortfalls.
The film underscores that the United States and Turkey are the only NATO member states to prohibit the enlistment of openly gay and lesbian citizens. Among their coalition partners in Iraq, for example, American troops have undoubtedly served alongside gay and lesbian British soldiers, apparently without incident. The film includes an exploration of the Canadian government’s 1992 decision to allowing gay and lesbian troops to serve openly.
A recent Government Accountability Office study indicated that over 10,000 gay and lesbian Americans have been discharged from the military since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s inception and the law’s opponents, including several Democrats on the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee, have criticized the enormous cost incurred by prosecuting such discharges.
Rep. Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced legislation that would allow gay and lesbian troops to serve openly. The legislation has garnered the support of other Democrats, but the bill appears stalled in the Republican-led House.
Out Professionals, the gay professional group, hosted Wednesday’s Center event, which included a panel that featured Steve Ralls, the communications director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal services organization that advocates for gay and lesbian troops; Catherine Gray, a co-producer of the film; and Greg Williams, the chief executive officer of Lot 47 Films, the documentary’s distributor. (Louise Hogarth, the film’s director, was in South Africa.) The panel also included two former service members discharged under the ban—Megan Kuzmich, a former Air Force first lieutenant and Jason Brittingham, a former Coast Guard petty officer.
“I really came to a spiritual crisis,” said Kuzmich about her decision to divulge her sexual orientation to her commanding officer midway through a five-year term. “I didn’t feel like I had anything to lie about anymore so I came out,” said Kuzmich, who endured a yearlong administrative proceeding that resulted—partly due to the legal involvement of SLDN—in an honorable discharge in 2001.
Unlike Kuzmich, Brittingham was outed to his commanding officer by his roommate. Subsequently investigated, Brittingham was sent to various doctors and psychiatrists, and said that a superior officer accused him of having a personality disorder. He recalled the isolation he felt after unit mates viciously slashed his car tires and trashed his apartment. “These were guys who were supposed to die for me,” remarked Brittingham. “I felt like nobody had my back anymore.”
“Louise tends to want to do films about things that really incite her,” said Gray, the co-producer. “She was really upset with this issue and wanted to expose it.” The film is still in production and is scheduled to appear in 2006.
Hogarth’s last film, “The Gift,” deals with the occurrence of gay men who deliberately seek to become HIV-positive by having unprotected sex. In 2003, the film won the Newfest’s best documentary award.
“Nothing can have the kind of impact that a good documentary can have,” noted the distributor, Williams who said that the ban “is the most important issue we can face, but it’s also below the radar screen for many people.”
Ralls, the SLDN spokesman, said that he is confident that Hogarth’s documentary will help to establish fighting the ban as a front-burner gay issue. “Having a filmmaker of Louise’s caliber to weigh in speaks volumes about how far we have come since 1993,” said Ralls, whose group is helping to finalize the film’s production.
Conservative proponents of the military’s gay ban often invoke “military deference,” a doctrine referenced by court rulings upholding the ban, whereby military leaders are given broad prerogative in determining how best to comprise the military’s membership and duties. In a recent CNN interview, Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, claimed “the courts have always allowed the military to set its own standards in order to maintain good order and discipline.”
Ralls argued against the claim. “She’s not quite right,” asserted Ralls. “The Supreme Court has ruled that the military can limit the constitutional rights of service members only if there is a compelling reason to do so,” adding, “We believe that compelling reason no longer exists under DADT.”
According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, enforcing the ban has cost American taxpayers more than $191 million since its 1993 implementation. It has also resulted in the discharge of sorely needed technicians, health-care specialists and linguists proficient in the languages of nations that figure prominently in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. “There are virtually no people on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan who can speak Arabic,” said Ralls, who said that the Pentagon has fired 54 gay and lesbian Arabic-speaking linguists since 1993.
Although some cable networks have expressed interest in airing the completed documentary, Gray said that the broadcaster will be “whoever is going to market it the best.”
When asked by the panel’s moderator, Carlene Mahanna of Out Professionals, whether she believed the rank-and-file military was ready to allow openly gay individuals to serve, Kuzmich replied, “I do. It’s really a command issue, and I feel that once the policy changes, the level of harassment will come significantly down.”