DOASKDOTELL VIDEO REVIEW “Gays in the Military” and “To Support and Defend”, SLDN DADT Documentary


Title: Gays in the Military

Release Date:  2000 (September)

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 55 Minutes

MPAA Rating: n/a  (suggest PG-13)

Distributor and Production Company: The History Channel

Director; Writer:


Cast:  Mike Wallace, narrator

Technical: video for sale

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  gays in the military

Review:  This video has the format of an extended CBS “60 Minutes” report but has the effect of a short documentary feature film. It chronicles the history of the military policy towards gays from the mid 1970’s and the Matlovich case to 2000 with the horrible crime committed at Fort Campbell against Barry Winchell.

About half of the video covers the history prior to the 1993 debate and the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Most of the material in this segment comes from Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming (St. Martins, 1993, updated in a paperback reprint by Fawcett Columbine in 1994).  However, it provides instructive emphasis on certain details.  For example, Judge Giselle, in the Matlovich case, cited the inconsistency of the military and the tendency for commanders to keep gay soldiers that they wanted and then use homosexuality to discharge those whom they didn’t want, as unconstitutional.  The exceptions would lead to the “no exceptions” policy at the end of the Carter Administration, based on the notorious litany, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service…”    Witch-hunts would take off after 1981, and Lawrence Korb, in charge of implementing DOD personnel policy, never imagined that commanders would use the policy to hunt gays down. (Korb as always struck me as a true conservative in spirit, opposed to gratuitous governmental intrusions upon private lives.) Perry Watkins would be the first “big case” under the 1981 policy, but Watkins had openly announced his homosexuality when enlisting, out of honesty, and the military at the time had remained nonchalant.  Navy cryptographer Mel Dahl would be denied a Top Secret clearance (in a manner similar to Greta Cammermeyer a few years later) and then be drummed out of the Navy (but Dahl would get some back pay in a settlement, much smaller than Matlovich’s).  Female sailors Robin Bruce and Chris Russell would be publicly humiliated as they were taken off a ship as “lesbians.”  A young Army JAG officer, Michelle Benecke, would survive a witch hunt but soon resign in order to be able to fight the ban, and eventually start the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.  The Navy would try to cover up its own negligence in the U.S.S. Iowa explosion, blaming heterosexual sailor Clayton Hartwig with a false gay rumor, before the Navy would publicly admit its mistake in 1991 (the year of Tailhook, and of Desert Storm).

The video continues with a history of the 1993 debate, leading to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” “compromise” (the phrase written by Northwestern University military sociology professor Charles Moskos on a memo to be delivered up to the administration). This section of the film played out for me as if I were reliving scattered moments in a few of the most creative years of my own life.  Benecke describes military brass as “apoplectic” about Clinton’s campaign promise to lift the ban, once they suddenly realized he really wanted to fulfill it. Senator Sam Nunn would actually hide behind the idea of violence against gays, and Colin Powell would reportedly threaten to resign.  Keith Meinhold, whose story straddles the two versions of the ban, is shown proudly striding out of his US-flag draped Palo Alto home, almost as if doing a screen test. Congress would codify DADT into law at the end of 1993; and the idea of “Don’t Ask” would mislead servicemembers into believing that the policy was somehow more lenient, while discharges would increase. Nicole Galvin would be drummed out of West Point, while Timothy McVeigh (#2) would be identified by AOL as the author of a profile that identified him as “gay.”  (The video does not go into the fact that an Internet profile or web site is “published” or cover the privacy law controversies over ISP’s identifying anonymous posters as a result of subpoenas from either government or civil suits.)

The account of Barry Winchell is particularly chilling.  Soldier Javier Torrez would report that after the murder, a drill sergeant would make the troops sing “Faggot, faggot down the street, shoot him, shoot him till he retreats!”  And conservative military leaders shrug this off as inevitable. Robert Maginnis, supposedly another author of DADT, talks about the ban as an easy out for a class of recruits physically much softer, perhaps less inclined to lead the unifocal life required by the military.

The video at the very end makes the point that gays would have a legal draft-dodge if, in the case of national “emergency” Congress wanted to reinstitute the draft (it does not mention that the president cannot do this alone).  Maybe tens of thousands of guys would get out this way! No kidding!!  (But then that brings up the question of how seriously the rest of society will now take the military’s values, and the Boy Scouts seem to take these values seriously.)  There is a misleading statement at the very beginning, however, that it was not illegal to “be gay” in the military until 1993.  It was very much against military policy during the whole modern era, back to World War I, although often tolerated when the military needed men.  In fact, as the video points out, Julius Ceasar and Alexander the Great had male lovers, and the military in ancient Sparta actually encouraged homosexual “couples” to fight together (although there was no sense of freedom in that society that we have today).

The video does not go much into detail about the legal details of DADT, such as rebuttable presumption and the status v. conduct issue, except that it (through an interview with Benecke) maintains that Navy Lt. Zoe Dunning was the only person ever allowed under the “new” policy to rebut the presumption that she might engage in actual homosexual acts.  Other servicemembers would never come up to the plate in their own hearings.

The video also leaves the impression that the military views gays as an official nuisance, whose rights (however spelled out in the law or Constitution) can be violated at will “for the good of the country.”  In the view of some military commanders who can “get away with it” (and these are commanders with hands on the button, gays are Atlantean-hybrid-slaves with no rights; that gays just disappear are part of the natural order of things. As I’ve argued in my own books and elsewhere on this site, this is most unacceptable in the example that the military sets for civilian society.

Near the end, Charles Moskos plays Candide, when he admits that DADT is the worst of all solutions, except for all others.


There is also an older view, To Support and Defend (1993), from Parade Pictures and the Campaign for Military Service, produced by Julia Siminski and Rob Wilson. The film consists largely of interviews with gay military members who have fought the ban, with commentary also by  Reagan-era DOD administrator Lawrence Korb. The video starts with various members taking the oath to support and defned, an oath I took myself not only when enlisting in 1968, but also with my first civil service job in 1963.  Korb notes that gays have fought “in the trenches,” and have actually tended to turn out to be more stable than average on psychological tests. Justin Elzie, Michael Gray, Jason Skerik, Dusty Pruitt, Thomas Panaccia, and Keith Meinhold all give testimonials. Meinhold joined the Navy in 1980 in personal response to the hostage crisis in Iran. Two of his straight unit mates attest to his ability to blend into his units. Another commentator tells the story of a gay Green Beret, no John Wayne stereotyoe by one who gave his life in a rice paddy in Vietnam. Michael Gray analyzes the comparison to the arguments used about racial integration of the military by President Truman in the late 1940s.


It seems to me that one could lawfully purchase the copyrights and exhibition rights to these two videos and come up with a very compelling feature film. In 1993 many saw this issue as a “small problem” of special interests.  Now we have had September 11.  We are no longer the same country.  We can take this on again.


Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) produced a 8-minute “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Documentary” in 2008, link for review here.






Related reviews: Serving in Silence; Any Mother’s Son; Coming Out under Fire; Soldier’s Girl


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