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‘Gays in the Military’ photo exhibit opens Friday

Documentary photographer Vincent Cianni was working in his studio in November 2009 when he heard an interview with the mother of a young soldier who was being discharged from the military because he was gay.

“When she spoke about him in such a compelling, honest, loving and also proud way, I felt moved as a gay person to be able to do something about the issue of gays and lesbians not being allowed to serve in the military,” Cianni told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “As a documentary photographer, the best way that I could do that really was to begin this project and investigate their lives and their careers and the effects the policy had on those lives and careers.”

That investigation has turned into a photo exhibit and book, “Gays in the Military: Photographs and Interviews.” The photo exhibit can be seen for one month at Webster University’s May Gallery starting Friday.

Cianni ended up interviewing almost 120 people for his project. In the spring of 2010, he began planning two- to three-week road trips to interview and photograph current and former members of the military. The oldest person he photographed was a 92-year-old World War II veteran; the youngest was a new enlistee.

“As we go through the decades, through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, you see marked differences in terms of how the people were treated,” Cianni said. “There was really, really harsh treatment of LGBT service members during the ’60s and ’70s particularly, which included physical violence (and) sexual violence. During the ’80s, when the military was downsizing a bit, they were a part of a group of people that included drug addicts (and) domestic violence perpetrators that were actually weeded from the military through witch hunts. And then in the ’90s, with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ even though that policy was thought to be a good, expansive policy to allow gay people to serve, because of the ambiguity there were a lot of psychological effects that took place.”

During Cianni’s project, the military’s stance on gay service members changed. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was adopted as the military’s official policy on gays and lesbians in the military in December 1993, was repealed in September 2011.

From his conversations with active military members, Cianni said that then it has become easier for gay service members to serve openly. They now have job security and psychological security, he said, although benefits for the spouses of gay service members are not equal to those for spouses of straight service members.

Cianni did not serve in the military, which became an issue to work through during his project.

“Even though I’m a gay person and these are gay people that I photographed, our understanding, our political differences, our view of the world and the fact that they served and I did not serve, I chose not to serve, was not a block, but it was something that actually I had to understand in terms of my openness and my willingness to embrace these differences to be able to investigate their lives in a very compassionate, human way.”  

Related Event

Vincent Cianni’s “Gays in the Military”
Photographer Vincent Cianni will speak about his project at 3 p.m. Friday in Room 123 at the Sverdrup Building. There's an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday.

  • When: Feb. 27-March 27, 2015
  • Where: May Gallery in Webster University's Sverdrup Building, 8300 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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