One of my earliest childhood memories is marching in a protest against the Vietnam War. Though my grandfathers both served in WWII, my parents became 1960s anti-war activists. I still have a letter I wrote when I was four years old: “Dear Mr. Nixon. Please end the war.”
As an adult, I was no more inclined to embrace the military than I had been as a child. But after I realized I was gay, I witnessed the pervasiveness of homophobia and became actively involved in fighting for the same values that the military strives to uphold — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As a cultural warrior, I found that documentary film, with its power to counter misinformation by telling real stories of gay lives, became my weapon of choice.
Stories of injustice are prevalent, but the saga of "don't ask, don't tell" struck me as a particularly blatant example of institutionalized discrimination. The policy is predicated on the idea that, regardless of the qualifications of the servicemember, being openly gay is so problematic that it will rip the armed forces apart — or, in military language, “destroy unit cohesion.” The military will admit gays and lesbians, and send them into combat, but only on the condition that they hide an essential part of their identities. Those gays and lesbians who do serve risk expulsion. Some are subject to months of interrogation and investigation, while others are kicked out of their units literally overnight. Many lose years worth of educational and retirement benefits.
Creating Ask Not became a means of finding answers to persistent questions about this hypocritical policy — not just those I asked myself as a gay man concerned about equal rights, but those that interested me as an American citizen. What are the costs of spending our national tax dollars to train doctors, intelligence experts, and Arabic linguists, only to discharge these highly qualified men and women because they are gay or lesbian? Does a military unit function more effectively when its members can speak openly about who they are, or when some are forced to lie? And what is the experience of taking on one of the most stressful jobs in the nation, and doing it with the added burden of being forced to conceal your sexual identity?
Heterosexuals in combat positions enjoy open communication with their families and psychological support networks for their spouses, but gay troops find their communication and their relationships undermined. Sadly, gay and lesbian soldiers often grow accustomed to the bitter realities of serving under "don't ask, don't tell." They leave for war without their partners allowed on base to say goodbye. They wake each day wondering not just whether they will be killed, but additionally, whether they will be outed, discharged, and excommunicated from the military and their fellow soldiers. They know that if death does come on the battlefield, military officials will not provide their partners with heartfelt condolences and a lifetime benefits package; instead, the partners will receive nothing, and will likely read about the deaths in the newspaper.
As I made Ask Not, I gained an appreciation for the familial, communal and personal reasons why people, gay and straight, choose to enlist. The bonds of comradeship that develop between unit members can be incredibly strong, and they can easily withstand and transcend differences in sexual orientation. Creating this film has taught me that, despite my peacenik origins, being anti-war and being anti-military are not one and the same. Even as the painful toll of war is evident, most Americans can agree that we need a military, and that we’d like it to be both nondiscriminatory and maximally effective.
My hope is that Ask Not, will deepen awareness, cultivate lively debate and mobilize more public action against this archaic policy. With an estimated 65,000 LGBT people currently in the military, it is essential that, as Americans, we ask ourselves if "don't ask, don't tell" serves our collective interests and values: from national security to human rights, from economic stability to upholding the principles of the Constitution. Until the government allows gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve the country openly, the very notion of American citizenship is threatened, just as it would be if any other group were singled out, excluded and punished on the basis of who they are, not what they do. Our military fights for those types of democratic rights in other nations every day. We should demand no less at home.
Johnny Symons, Producer/Director
Johnny Symons is a documentary film- and videomaker based in Berkeley, California. His ITVS-funded film Daddy & Papa (2002), an exploration of the personal, cultural, and political impact of gay men raising kids, premiered at Sundance, won more than 15 major festival awards, aired nationally on Independent Lens, and received a national Emmy nomination for Best Documentary. Beyond Conception (2006), his feature documentary about the relationship between a lesbian surrogate and a gay male couple as they conceive and bear a child, premiered at the Florida Film Festival and aired on Discovery Health Channel. Symons is the co-producer of the Academy Award-nominated Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2000), a feature documentary about South Africa’s search for truth and reconciliation, and winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Symons has been creating films about gay culture since 1991, including Beauty Before Age (1997), an exploration of the fear of growing older in the gay male community, which received an NEMN Gold Apple and an IDA nomination; Shaving the Castro (1995), a portrait of a 70-year-old Castro Street barber shop that aired nationally on public television; and Out in Africa (1994), an exploration of black African gay life, which was named Best Documentary at the Turin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Symons’s other credits include It’s STILL Elementary (2008), Lost Boys of Sudan (2003, PBS), Bubbeh Lee and Me (1996, HBO), and The Celluloid Closet (1995, HBO). He has freelanced as a segment producer for the PBS gay and lesbian cultural affairs show, In the Life, since 1998.
Symons graduated with honors from Brown University and has a master’s degree in documentary production from Stanford University. He currently teaches documentary film at both Stanford and the Art Institute of California-San Francisco. He is the father of two sons, Zachary and Kenyon.