Out filmmaker Johnny Symons ( pronounced "Sigh-mons" ) —who has made several documentaries examining LGBT issues ( Daddy and Papa, Beyond Conception ) —now returns with Ask Not. The film, which focuses on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy ban on gays and lesbians openly serving their country, follows several gay ex-military personnel as well as "Perry," a queer African American from San Francisco as he enters the service in order to pay off his large student loans. Perry's story, which follows him during his tour of duty in Iraq and on leave in Paris, represents the dilemma still facing thousands of other nameless military personnel forced to hide their sexuality. Ask Not will be shown as an episode of "Independent Lens" on PBS and will have its local premiere on WTTW on Tuesday, June 16, at 10 p.m.
Windy City Times: I do not understand: Why does a gay person want to be in the military to begin with? I don't quite get it.
Johnny Symons: I think that's a good question. Definitely, when I started off to film I didn't know the answer to that. I would say that one of the things that I learned in making the film was that there are a lot of reasons why people choose to enter the military. Sometimes you come from a family where that is really valued and sometimes it's a community thing. For a lot of people it's an economic choice.
WCT: I get the money thing.
JS: That is definitely a motivating factor. I think for some people it's a sense of wanting to do something for your country, wanting to do something of service, wanting to be in service, wanting to go challenge yourself. It's not so much wanting to put yourself in harms way as maybe saying to yourself, "I want to prove to myself that I can do this tough thing."
WCT: It's still mind-boggling that someone would sign up if they were gay. "I'm going to purposely make myself go into the closet and change my behavior." Your subject Perry does just that—later when we catch up with him in Iraq, he has actually altered the way he talks and his mannerisms. That's mind-blowing to me.
JS: Certainly it's not a choice that a lot of people make and that's in a way why my stumbling across him at a party was all the more remarkable in a sense because he was very, very out. I think a lot of people who are gay and in the military join before they really know what their sexual orientation is. That's certainly a scenario I heard about more. I certainly can't offer percentages but just anecdotally I talked to a lot of people who said, "I wasn't sure whether I was gay or straight. I hadn't come to terms with my sexual orientation when I joined up. Then I signed this contract and I got in there and I was with all these other people and suddenly I realized that I was gay and then had to figure out how to deal with it at that point." That is what I heard quite often.
WCT: You mention an enlistment figure of 65,000 gay and lesbian personnel currently in the military. Where does that come from?
JS: It's derived from UCLA's Williams Institute, which is sort of a demographic think tank that does a lot of studying about LGBT issues. I'm not quite sure how they arrived at that figure. Obviously, it's a hard thing to know precisely because. It is an estimate but it's fairly reliably and consistently among different groups as a figure that's a good estimate.
WCT: It was interesting to see the two gay ex-military couples who did the tour protesting against Don't Ask, Don't Tell and ending up attending a military school where they had been confronted with homophobia during the tour.
JS: That is something that happens to a lot of people as well. There is something very appealing about the structure and the system that military life represents. Those guys really like the military and they also felt like that was a real opportunity for them at that particular institute because they could play the role of teaching people what it meant to be gay. They wanted to set an example.
WCT: Is it true that President Obama can sign something that will stop people from being discharged for being gay while the policy is being looked at?
JS: It's an interesting question. Basically, when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was signed into law during the Clinton administration it became a law—it's not a policy—and laws have to be lifted by Congress or by the Supreme Court. So, the president actually lost his ability to sign a document and just get rid of it—like Clinton had before he took office. Like Truman had over the integration of African Americans into the military. So, it hasn't been regarded as something that Obama could really do until a few weeks ago when the Palm Center came out with a study that looked at this whole thing and concluded that Obama can't get rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by signing a piece of paper but he could sign something that says, "We are going to stop enforcing it" which sort of amounts to the same thing. By doing that, it would give Congress an opportunity to actually take it under consideration and act on it in their own time.
WCT: So he's said he's going to do this—do you know why he doesn't do it? Those are his intentions—he answered that young woman's letter...
JS: "I intend to uphold my promise." Yes; he has said that. He hasn't said, "I'm going to sign a piece of paper that will put this whole thing on hold." He has said, "If Congress passes a law and it comes to my desk I'll sign it." But that's different than saying, "I will preemptively sign this Executive Order that will stop enforcing it." I know it sounds like two sides of the same coin but it's a lot of politics here and he's moving very cautiously and he doesn't want to spend too much political capital on this, I think, particularly if he acts on it in a way that doesn't seem to be sanctioned by a number of other people in Washington. Then he could get really slammed for it. I think his hearts' in the right place but he's probably looking at Clinton and saying, "I don't want to make the same mistakes that he did."
WCT: Interesting to hear in the film that that's one of Clinton's biggest regrets of his presidency. It was heartening to see you cite at the end of the film that the figures have dramatically decreased in those who were originally against gays and lesbians serving in the military then and their change of heart now.
JS: It's worth looking at those figures carefully because the original figure—16% of soldiers in 1993 thought gays should serve openly—is a little different than the figure gotten from the second question—How comfortable are you with gays and lesbians?—and over 70% of service members now say that they feel personally comfortable with gays and lesbians. It's a huge jump but that doesn't mean that all of those 73% will say consistently, "Yes, I'd be happy to serve with openly gay people" but asked whether they're comfortable or not, they say, "Sure." I think a lot of that is reflective of this enormous change that has gone in the last 15 years around just how out gay people are in general—especially in that age population group.
WCT: Do you have a sense of a timeline when we could possibly see the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"
JS: It's really hard to predict; I don't. I've heard huge ranges in the estimates for how long it would take for this policy to get repealed. Some people say that it's going to happen this year and all it's going to take is for Obama at least to sign a piece of paper that stops enforcement of it. Other people say, "Well, you know, he'll probably do it in before the mid-term elections because that's when Presidents traditionally take big actions." Other people say he'll wait until his second term because he doesn't want to jeopardize anyone's political future. Some people think we'll have to have another of those big studies and Obama has really waffled on this since he took office. He initially said, "I support repeal" and he ran on that issue in his campaign and when he's been pressed on it since taking office either he or Defense Secretary Gates has said, "Well, maybe we should have another big study." So, who knows?
WCT: That's what we need for all gay issues [ Laughs ] —another of those stupid studies. Maybe, with gay marriage so prominent, it's too many gay issues at once.
JS: It could be but listen. I'm not a lobbyist, I'm a filmmaker and I don't really have my finger on that pulse as well as many other people would.
WCT: You've covered other LGBT issues in other films. What's your next subject going to be?
JS: I'm figuring that out right now. I have several irons in the fire but making these films is a big undertaking so I'm doing a lot of exploring before I plunge in for my next one. But rest assured, it will be something gay. [ Laughs ]
WCT: So is your favorite song, "Johnny, Are You Queer?"
JS: I haven't been asked that in awhile and the answer is yes. [ Laughs ]
See www.asknotfilm.com .