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"Ask Not": Film in Community Cinema series explores policy toward gays in military

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2009 - When Johnny Symons began shooting a documentary in late 2005 about the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, George W. Bush was still early in his second term and many states were gearing up for a fight over same-sex marriage.

The film, "Ask Not," plays Thursday as part of the Community Cinema series -- and again next month on KETC -- at a time when the political landscape looks quite different. There's a new face in the White House, of course, and the movement for same-sex marriage has gained, and lost, ground in some surprising places -- like Iowa and California.

Symons' film makes no mention of gay marriage; it focuses instead on the policy that prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. armed forces. But given the political times, it won't be surprising if the discussion after Thursday's free screening at the Missouri History Museum also touches on marriage and other civil rights for gays.

"It's good timing now for this film, but it's been a good time for a while," said Symons, pointing to the ongoing discussion about gay rights. "Repealing 'don't ask, don't tell' wasn't on the table during the Bush administration. We'll have to see whether President Obama will take action (which he has promised to do). There's certainly more interest and willingness to look at the issue."

PBS chose to look at the topic as part of its "Independent Lens" series. "Ask Not," which finished production more than a year ago, has since been circulating at film festivals. Symons' previous film about gay men raising kids was a festival hit and also aired nationally on the PBS series.

With the country engaged in two wars and the military ramping up its recruiting efforts, Symons said he wanted to shine a light on people who had been turned away because of their sexuality. Since the implementation of the policy during the Clinton administration in 1993, an estimated 12,000 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged.

One of the film's main voices is a former U.S. Army private who was released from duty after outing himself. "Ask Not" chronicles his tour across the country to spur debate about the military policy, which also directs commanders to refrain from asking service members about their sexual orientation. He is joined by another recent Army veteran who chose not to re-enlist because he was tired of hiding his sexuality.

Not only did both men have foreign language skills that are in high demand, but the film noted that replacing discharged service members is a costly proposition. Symons tracked down an Army soldier about to begin service who is gay but not "out" to people in the military. He also followed nonviolent protesters who wanted to enlist but were turned away because they were open about their sexuality. (Several protesters were taken into custody for trespassing at military recruiting stations.)

Symons said the main subjects of the film were eager to have their stories told. "I didn't want to just have people who'd served and were looking back, but people who are actively engaged in changing the policy who I could follow over time," he said.

"Ask Not" also recaps the political history of "don't ask, don't tell." Early in his first term, President Bill Clinton approved the compromise measure that relaxed the ban on gay and lesbians in the military. He had received significant pushback on his campaign promise to lift the ban. Critics said allowing homosexuals to enlist could lower troop morale and disrupt unit cohesion.

Public opinion about gays in the military has shifted significantly over the last 15 years, according to polls. In 2008, about three in four Americans said openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. That number was up more than 10 percentage points from 2001 and was a marked change from the 44 percent of people who agreed in 1993. 

Still, support for abolishing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" isn't as strong among military members, polls indicate. Symons said he's noticed an increase in the number of service members who say they are comfortable being around gay people.

The dissenting voices in "Ask Not" are primarily politicians and military brass who during Washington hearings speak against allowing openly gay people to enlist. There's also a defense of "don't ask, don't tell" from the military sociologist who authored the policy.

Symons said people at the military recruiting centers varied in terms of their cooperation with the film crew -- some said shoot outside, and others allowed cameras inside.

"What I got from people in the military was pretty consistent," he said. "It was, 'Hey, it's the law, and it's our duty to uphold it.'"