Posted on May 22, 2009

Johnny Symons, producer and director of ASK NOT, a film that explores the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, airing on Independent Lens, June 16 at 10:00 PM (check local listings), discusses his most recent Community Cinema screening in Evansville, Indiana. Find out what it was like for him as he ventured into this unfamiliar Midwestern region and discovered a much more diverse community than expected.

I was on my way to Evansville, Indiana. Though I consider myself a geography geek, I’d never even heard of it. The map in the airline magazine revealed that Evansville was near St. Louis, MO and Louisville, KY––and further south than both of them. As I gazed out over rectangles of green and brown Midwestern farmland shimmering in the spring sunlight, I thought about the Community Cinema screening I’d been at the night before––the one in San Francisco, where the first four questions came from anti-military activists concerned about the American imperialist agenda. I had a feeling tonight’s event wouldn’t consist of the same crowd. I was greeted at the airport by Suzanne Hudson-Smith, the upbeat and charming organizer of Community Cinema at WNIN, Evansville’s PBS affiliate. As we chatted on the way to the event, I noticed Indiana license plates emblazoned with slogans like “In God We Trust” and “Where Good Men Get Better.” “Your Wife is Hot,” declared a billboard, “Better Get the A/C Fixed.” Suzanne shared her own, somewhat different perspective on life in Evansville as an open lesbian.

The ASK NOT screening, held at the University of Evansville, generated a large crowd, which included military vets, members of a gay youth group and a number of devoted Community Cinema senior citizens, who watched with rapt attention. After the film, the Q&A kicked off with an impressive description of “don’t ask, don’t tell” by Robert Dion, a local political science professor who wrote his dissertation on the policy’s history. The questioning was lively: a straight Vietnam vet described how in his day, most of his Army buddies would have complained about openly gay soldiers in their midst. This led to a discussion of changing attitudes, and the recent surveys that reveal that 70 percent of servicemembers now feel comfortable with gays and lesbians. Next, a heated conversation ensued between a gay man and WNIN’s station manager over the decision to air ASK NOT but not another controversial gay-themed program several years ago.

Other questions focused on Obama and the prospects for lifting the gay ban in the near future. After the screening, I was approached by a woman who told me that she had joined the military, discovered she was a lesbian and was now struggling with what to do. It’s an unfortunate and all-too-common story: there are thousands of people who have signed up to serve their country and want to continue, but suddenly find themselves contractually bound to years of silence and celibacy. I was grateful that she had taken the risk to come see the film and speak to me, and I was happy to connect her to resources like those available on the ASK NOT Web site

Later in the evening, we stopped for a snack, which consisted of the last thing I expected to find in southern Indiana: sushi with brown rice. Outside, we ran into a friend of Suzanne’s who pulled me aside to share his opinion of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “This is an issue of poverty,” he said. “All sorts of poor kids around here grow up and join the military to work their way up in the world. But if you’re gay, you can’t do that. That’s just not right.” While there are many reasons to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s this argument––that it amounts to federally-sanctioned workplace discrimination, often against the people who need assistance the most–– that I have found resonates most strongly in pro-military communities in middle America. I thought back to the closeted lesbian I’d chatted with after the screening, and hoped she would find her way out of her tough situation. 

The next morning, I did a TV interview for the local PBS Newsmakers show and then headed to the airport. On the way, my driver, another WNIN employee, described her experiences with interracial dating and growing up with a lesbian mom––further exploding my pre-conceptions of Evansville. Then, a whirlwind 18 hours after my arrival, I was off to my next Community Cinema destination––and a whole new audience––in Boston. 


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