Asking questions of "Ask Not" director Johnny Symons

By Colleen Good

Earlier this week, The Mac Weekly spoke with Director Johnny Symons about his film “Ask Not,” a documentary on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. “Ask Not” will be shown in the Kagin Ballroom Monday at 7 p. m., with a discussion following the film with Symons and several subjects of the film.TMW: What’s a basic synopsis of the film?

Johnny Symons: The film is about what it’s like to serve in the United States military under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy. And it looks at the experiences of gays and lesbians who are serving from a few different perspectives.

There are basically three interweaving story lines in the film. One is a group of veterans who travel around the country, mostly to colleges, and speak about what their experience has been like serving. They’re young, you know, they’re in their early twenties. Their goal is to go places where they can really stir up some dialogue, get people thinking about whether the policy makes sense. They’re called the “Call to Duty Tour.”

There’s another group of young folks who are more activist oriented. And they are actually from the Twin Cities, and their idea is to go into recruitment centers around the country and attempt to enlist, but not hide the fact that they’re gay. They want to serve, but they want to do it openly. So when they go in and say that to the recruitment officers, they are turned away, and then they stage sit ins and they are often arrested. So you see this actually happening at the National Guard recruitment office in Roseville in the film.

The third story is about an infantry soldier from San Francisco who has been living an openly gay life, and then decides to leave and join the military and ships off to Iraq, and then brings a video camera with him and films his experience of actually serving in the army, while he’s hiding his identity. His face is blurred throughout the film to protect his identity.

TMW: How did you decide on those three stories for the film?

JS: I decided at the outset of making the film that it would be a hard film to make because it was making a film about something that was inherently invisible. So I thought, how can I tell this story in a way that’s dynamic and current, that keeps the story moving forward? I was looking for stories of people who were actively working to do something in their lives to counteract the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. I came across these two activist stories and I also met the soldier right before he left for Iraq, and it felt like that combination of stories was a good one, to show multiple sides of the issue.

TMW: There were Community Cinema screenings of the film with PBS, as well as the screenings that you’ve done through different film festivals. Did you notice any particular difference between the responses of audience members to the film?

JS: Well, that’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say there were radical differences between the Community Cinema screenings from the festival screenings. People in the Midwest responded really positively to the film. People in areas where the military draws a lot of its recruits from have a different perspective on this issue than the sort of the bigger urban areas maybe on the coast. When I showed it in Indiana it was very interesting because there were a lot of older veterans who were there, you know, the guys who had served in Vietnam, who spoke about what their experience was like when they had known people they were serving with were gay, and how that was handled at the time. There’s been a real range of folks who’ve attended and voiced their views about it.

TMW: What do you see as the main challenges faced in overturning the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy?

JS: There’s a lot of political resistance to overturning it right now. President Obama has said multiple times that he’s opposed to the policy and he’d like to get rid of it…If you look at the other LGBT legislation that’s been considered, it’s taken a really long time for Congress to vote on it in a way that’s actually supportive of LGBT life. It’s not surprising that this one is taking a while, given that it’s the military, which is such a conservative traditional institution. I believe that Obama wants to do away with it, but how quickly it will happen? Hard to know.

TMW: Last month Obama spoke to the Human Rights Campaign and mentioned ending the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, but didn’t give a time frame. There were a lot of criticisms of that, but with the fact that Congress has to act in order to repeal this, do you think there’s much Obama could do to further the repealing of the policy?

JS: He can’t do what Clinton could have done, and sign an executive order with the stroke of a pen and do away with the policy, but he could stop enforcing it. As Commander in Chief, he has the power to say this needs to be studied more. It’s not in the best interest of the country to be kicking these people out right now. I do think he has some power that he’s not exercising.

TMW: In an interview with North Country Public Radio, you mentioned that the policy decreases unit cohesion because soldiers aren’t able to communicate freely with their fellow soldiers.

JS: One of the arguments for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell when it was first implemented was that if gay people were allowed to serve openly it would erode and destroy unit cohesion, which is thought to be critical for military units to operate effectively. What’s interesting and ironic is the implementation of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has forced all the people who are operating within these units to create a false identity, to lie about who they are, what they care about, who they care about, what they’ve done over the weekend, or what letter they’ve gotten in the mail. They’re hiding…the honesty is not there. Other soldiers sense that and begin to wonder if they can really trust folks, because they can see through the lies. What’s actually gone on, and studies have shown this, is that the level of unit cohesion has actually been eroded because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We have gays and lesbians serving, we always will, and we’re asking them to hide who they really are.

TMW: There was a recent New York Times editorial that discussed an essay in military journal Joint Force Quarterly where Air Force Col. Om Prakash discussed research on the impact of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on the military. He debunked the claim that unit cohesion would be compromised by homosexuals serving openly by saying other countries have already done this. Do you think that such open criticisms within the military structure show a change in thought in military culture or is this more of an individual occurrence?

JS: Well, I think a lot of people are starting to rethink this. There have been almost 100 retired admirals and generals now who have signed a letter to Congress advocating for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And these are folks who grew up in a time when gays and lesbians generally were not out. Yet they’ve seen that the culture is changing, and they’ve talked to younger service members, and have realized that it’s really not that big of a deal. There are people in positions of power and leadership in the military who are rethinking this. This Om Prakash article is a good example of changes in the military leadership. Congress is another story. People in Congress have to go back to their constituents and say, yeah, this is how I voted and I want you to vote for me again next time. But because LGBT rights are a small minority in this country, they tend not to be very popular when it comes to politics. That makes it challenging to overcome, even as we’re beginning to see these changes in the military.

TMW: What do you suggest that college students who want to get involved in this issue do?

JS: Students who are in college are of the age of the majority of people who comprise the military. Military leadership needs to know that times have changed and that it’s not that big of a deal for young people who are straigh
t to serve with other people who are openly gay. That there are thousands of GSAs in high schools now, that they see openly gay folks on TV, have openly gay friends and it’s not the kind of thing that would be a deterrent to being effective at your job in the military. College students are in a really good position to be able to send that message…sometimes that can be done through campus activism, sometimes it can be done through individual activism…continuing to keep the heat on this issue is what’s going to make a difference.

TMW: How did your parents’ activism influence your decision to do documentary film?

JS: I guess I grew up with a strong belief system that there’s a lot of injustice in the world and it’s important to bring it to people’s attention in some way and bring about some social change. I did activism as a college student and I was in college when I came out and a lot of that activism turned towards fighting for gay rights and gay equality. After college I spent a fair amount of time doing HIV prevention work and trying to work within the community of young gay people to talk about the AIDS epidemic. In the midst of that I really felt like I was doing the kind of work where I’d be talking to people in the streets. I kept having very interesting conversations with people and wishing I could video tape these stories and share the stuff I’m learning. That’s kind of what drew me to making documentaries in the first place. You’re combining real life stories with visuals and audio material, and creating an emotional experience for people that hopefully provokes them to move from one way of seeing the world to another.