Charge of the Light Brigade

On September 29, 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton publicly announced his support of a repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. armed forces. The public outcry was immediate. Opinion polls revealed a nation split fairly evenly on the subject. In January 1993, after taking office and fielding objections from the Pentagon and several key members of Congress, Clinton backpedaled, charging then-defense secretary Les Aspin with the task of studying the issue and drafting an executive policy directive. The presidential waffling infuriated gay rights advocates and presaged the indecisiveness and vacillation that has plagued the first two years of Clinton's administration.

In July 1993, the president issued a "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy that allowed homosexuals to serve in the military (allowed...to serve A what a concept! Maybe McDonald's should adopt the same policy: "We are now accepting applications allowing people to serve") as long as they agreed not to "announce" their sexual orientation. Clinton deemed the new code "an honorable compromise." As in the case of most of the high-profile decisions Clinton has made since that time, the tradeoff left bad feelings on both sides of the issue. The gung-ho macho militarists want the sissies and the sisters of Sappho out; the gay community condemns the weak-kneed, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil compromise as a cop-out.

Coming Out Under Fire, Arthur Dong's black-and-white (literally and figuratively) documentary decrying the military's persecution of gay men and lesbians during World War II, is based on the book of the same name by Allan Berube, who also co-wrote the film. Dong and Berube build a persuasive (although largely anecdotal) case against the government. As pure cinema, the movie is less than innovative; Dong's technique is to intercut talking-head interviews conducted with gay WWII veterans with newsreel and archival footage, clips from training films, and still photos to augment the interviewees' recollections. What the film lacks in flashy camerawork and state-of-the-art visuals, however, it makes up for in substance. Coming Out's nine gay subjects speak with eloquence and conviction about the indignities they have endured as a result of the military's (and, indeed, the federal government's) homophobic campaigns over the years, from subtle intimidation to outright incarceration.

"That was maybe the last war where people really believed something needed done," recalls Phillis Abry (who died before Coming Out Under Fire was completed and to whose memory the film is dedicated), former radio technician and model WAC.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," adds self-described red-blooded patriot and former Naval communications officer R.D. Winter. "They bombed Pearl Harbor, and we didn't know where they were and we had no Navy and we thought, 'Good God, they're going to come over and blow us up.' It was panic. Everyone knew they [we] were going to be involved."

These potentially exemplary soldiers were willing to risk their lives to stop the spread of fascism, but the U.S. government didn't want "queers" mingling with the "regular" troops. So they lied about their sexual orientation. (Gays were classified as undesirables alongside pathological liars, swindlers, acute alcoholics, and vagrants.) They kept up the pretense in the face of a silly screening program of medical examinations and psychological testing. At one point, doctors lined up new recruits and made them strip while the medical men looked them over. "I worried, 'My God, could they tell something just by looking at me?'" chuckles U.S. Army Air Corps, Special Services veteran Marvin Liebman, a lifelong Republican and one of the founders of the modern conservative movement. Liebman shocked his friends and political associates when he came out in the pages of the National Review in 1990.

When screening didn't work, the military resorted to an outright purge, building "queer stockades" and dishonorably discharging gays as psychopaths (technically, lesbians weren't violating the Articles of War prohibition of sodomy) and sex perverts. "My commanding officer called me in," Liebman reminisces. "I thought something had happened to my parents or something. And he said, 'Are you a cocksucker?' 'No sir!' I replied. And I thought, 'I'm going to die here.' Everybody knew something was happening, every eye was focused on me. I started to perspire. 'Are you one of those New York Jew faggots?' he said in his Texas accent."

Coming Out Under Fire tells nine such stories, bracketed by actual footage of the 1993 Senate hearings (which, sadly, demonstrate how little attitudes actually have changed over the course of half a century). The film offers no shocking revelations or astounding insights (after all, how surprising is insensitivity on the part of the U.S. military, or stupidity in the halls of Congress? Aren't they just assumed?), just the documentation of fifty years of ignorance told in the words of its victims.

 
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