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As wars rage in the Middle East, the U.S. military is eager for more recruits — unless they happen to be openly gay.
Johnny Symons is a Bay Area documentary filmmaker focusing on LGBT cultural and political issues. His feature documentaries include Daddy & Papa (2002), which premiered at Sundance, broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens, and was nominated for a national Emmy for Best Documentary. Beyond… Conception (2006) premiered at the Florida Film Festival and broadcast on Discovery Channel. Ask Not (2008) won four festival awards, aired on Independent Lens and screened on Capitol Hill for members of Congress. He co-produced the Academy Award-nominated Long Night’s Journey into Day, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance in 2000. Symons has a master’s in documentary production from Stanford, and was recently a Fellow in the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. He is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Documentary Program in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University.
Homosexuality is the last target of official discrimination in the U.S. armed forces. When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, his campaign pledge to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military became a heated issue, with military leaders, Christian fundamentalists, and conservative Congress members expressing vehement opposition. A sociologist at Northwestern University proposed the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy as a compromise, creating a double standard: Gay service members could serve as long as they were not open about their sexual orientation and did not engage in homosexual behavior. Originally intended to protect gays by letting them serve in the military without being subject to questions about their sexual orientation, DADT instead mandated silence and celibacy. Ask Not exposes the tangled political battles that led to DADT and examines the societal shifts that have occurred since its 1993 passage. Since the law’s implementation, more than 12,000 personnel have been discharged including linguists and others whose skills are critical to military operations. In Ask Not, current and veteran gay soldiers reveal how the policy has affected them during their tours of duty as they struggle to maintain a double life, uncertain of whom they can trust.
The film also explores how gay veterans and youth organizers are turning to activism to challenge DADT. From a national speaking tour of conservative universities to protests at military recruitment offices, these public events question how the U.S. military can claim to represent democracy and freedom while denying a significant segment of the population the right to serve. Conducted in 2006, the Call to Duty tour featured gay former military personnel speaking to communities across the country about their own service histories. The Right to Serve Campaign targeted military recruitment centers: Individuals attempted to enlist, openly declaring their homosexuality, and when they were refused enlistment, the would-be recruits and supporters held sit-ins and were arrested for trespassing.
More than 15 years after DADT was passed, scores of retired and active military officers support doing away with it. As attitudes change, expectations that the policy will be repealed are growing. But as Rear Admiral Alan Steinman points out in the film, only an act of Congress can repeal the law and replace it with a recruitment policy based on merit and ability, as many other countries have already done. Ask Not looks at the history of "don't ask, don't tell" and examines its ramifications for gay and lesbian individuals and for the military itself.