Community Cinema Presents ASK NOT at the Oakland Museum of California

Posted on May 28, 2009

Last night marked the final Oakland Community Cinema Screening for the season with more than 150 people attending ASK NOT at the Oakland Museum of California. ASK NOT, airing June 16 at 10:00 PM on Independent Lens on PBS (check local listings), explores the tangled political battles that led to the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and reveals the personal stories of gay Americans who serve in combat under a veil of secrecy. Read a recap of the event below and find out how the policy affects those in the bay area community.

Bay Area Regional Outreach Coordinator Sara Brissenden-Smith opened the discussion with Johnny Symons, filmmaker of ASK NOT; Darryl Moore, council member from District 2 in Berkeley; Rebecca Kaplan, council member at large; and Zoe Dunning, Navy Reserve Commander (Ret.) and board co-chair at the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN). At her retirement in June 2007, Dunning was the only openly gay person serving in the United States Military. The audience discussed topics that together culminated in a conversation on the issues raised in the film and recent related current events around California’s Proposition 8. So what was the inspiration to make ASK NOT?

Filmmaker Johnny Symons explained that he had not seen a documentary that he felt adequately told the story of those directly affected by Pub. L. 103-160, better known as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy. He also discussed his desire to create films depicting members of LGBTQ communities participating in culturally traditional institutions like the military and parenting. Symons is the founder of Persistent Visions, LLC, an award-winning production company that focuses on social issue LGBTQ documentaries. Symons’ film, DADDY AND PAPA was funded in part by ITVS and aired on Independent Lens in 2003. 

As audience members expressed their gratitude to Symons, the panelists and those serving despite DADT, discussion turned to specifics around the current policy and its placement in a historical context. Council member Rebecca Kaplan talked about The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1283), introduced on March 3, 2009 by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA). Tauscher is currently joined by 141 bipartisan cosponsors. The Military Readiness Enhancement Act would repeal the federal law that bans military service by LGBTQ Americans. Conversation shifted to the idea that the military’s discrimination against LGBTQ people wanting to serve openly is in fact an issue of civil rights. Council member Darryl Moore stated that this was the motivating factor in his becoming more involved with encouraging a policy shift. Council member Rebecca Kaplan said that she believed that repealing DADT and supporting a change in the military would foster a greater shift in the national perspective on homosexuality. 

Zoe Dunning responded to questions around unit cohesion, discussion ways that the DADT policy potentially jeopardized unit cohesion. She spoke to the assumption voiced by DADT advocates that an openly gay person serving amongst his/her unit would only result in a loss of cohesion amongst the members. An audience member and retired serviceperson spoke to his experience of being open about his sexuality to his unit members as being a very positive experience. Dunning additionally discussed ways that DADT disproportionally affects women and how the rate of personnel forced out of military service has created a “back door draft.” Straight or closeted service members who have completed requisite missions are often sent back into service in order to fill spaces left by those removed by the DADT policy. 

Panelists also discussed the staggering financial cost involved with enforcing DADT. Many audience members wanted to know how they could be come more involved with the issues raised in the film. Panelists suggested audience members try the following: 

1. Contact local representatives, either thanking them for supporting HR 1283 or asking them to support HR 1283.
2. Encourage family and friends living in areas where local representatives are not yet supportive of HR 1283 to learn more about the policy and sign on to the measure.
3. Write the White House asking President Obama to make his opinion about repealing DADT known.
4. Support Lieutenant Dan Choi, West Point Graduate and Arabic Linguist recently fired for being gay. Lieutenant Choi founded KnightsOut, a group of West Point alum, staff and faculty who support the repeal of DADT. 

The panelists completed the vividly engaging conversation by expressing their hope that with the current political momentum will help create a larger attitudinal shift resulting in policy change. Each reflected that representation from younger generations is needed in order to fully create this shift. This screening was a very positive, inspirational finale to another fascinating season of Oakland Community Cinema. Screenings will continue in September at an alternate venue (TBA). The Oakland Museum of California will undergo renovations until Spring 2010. What do you think of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy? Leave a comment below. 

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