Since the earliest days of the Clinton presidency, gays and lesbians have been allowed to serve in the armed forces only if they're silent about their sexuality and celibate. Designed as a practical way to ignore the injustice of the military's anti-gay stance, the Don't Ask policy has instead spurred witch-hunts, with more than 13,000 able soldiers discharged because of their sexuality. To avoid detection, gays have been forced to ignore homophobic slurs in the barracks, and some have resorted to near cloak-and-dagger techniques to deflect suspicion, creating ex-wives, girlfriends, and an apparent interest in Sports Illustrated swimsuit models.
Chlapowski and Nicholson first met in 2006 during a tour of military schools to spotlight the failings of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. A documentary that includes footage from that tour, Ask Not, will receive a community screening at the Charleston County Library on Calhoun Street on May 26 and will air nationally on PBS on June 16.
The documentary begins with a 15-year history lesson. It starts in 1992 with President Clinton's failed effort to end the military's ban on gay troops — an effort that led to Don't Ask as an attempt at compromise. The film also shows the intense opposition to reform by top military brass and right-wing conservatives.
Troops offer their first-person stories. There's a high-ranking officer who took out a magazine ad for a date to social functions. There's a gay soldier serving in Iraq whose friends in San Francisco drive to Oakland to send care packages to reduce suspicion.
Members of Soulforce, a gay rights group that spurs change through non-violent protests, are also shown attempting to enlist. After saying they're gay, the activists are turned away. They respond with a sit-in that tends to end with their arrest.
The documentary ends in 2007 with Chlapowski, Nicholson, and other service members laying thousands of flags in the grass on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., representing each soldier discharged under Don't Ask.
Gay veterans are also working behind the scenes to find support in the military's ranks. Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the earliest days of Don't Ask, wrote an editorial in The New York Times calling for an end to the policy; he cited conversations with former and active troops as a primary reason for his change of heart. Chlapowski and Nicholson were two of those troops. Other former high-ranking military leaders followed.
The response from the Pentagon has also showed promise, with current top brass referring questions to Congress, where a change to the law would be required.
"We're at a neutral position," says Chlapowski of the military response. "It's better than saying the policy works."
Praeparatio Et Cooperatio
The first thing Ask Not viewers will notice is that there's hardly a mention of the 2008 presidential election in the film.
Chlapowski says that efforts to reform the military's policy was intentionally muted during the election cycle.
"We realized that if this was raised in the campaign, it would be a partisan issue," he says. "That's something we can not allow it to be."
President Barack Obama's election brought hope for reform, but the administration made it clear that this and other efforts would have to wait while Obama addressed the economic troubles. But that hasn't eased the anxiousness of some activists.
While cleaning up the White House website's "Issues" section, language concerning Don't Ask Don't Tell was tightened up, notably replacing a call for a "repeal" of the policy with the more ambiguous "change." After left-leaning blog outrage, "repeal" was reinserted in the copy. Last week, Chicago's Windy City Times posted a handwritten note from the president in response to a service member who'd been discharged for coming out as a lesbian. In the note, President Obama reiterated his commitment to "changing" the policy. Change could mean allowing limited service for gays and lesbians, not outright repeal.
Also last week, First Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic translator, was notified of his discharge from the Army National Guard because he stated that he was gay in an interview on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. A post on the liberal blog Huffington Post was titled, "Obama to Fire His First Gay Arabic Linguist."
After speaking with members of the Congress, Chlapowski says a little extra time to prepare for a vote might not be a bad thing.
"I think there's a tendency to look at Obama and say that he's throwing us under a bus, a la Clinton, instead of looking at this as an opportunity to prepare for the debate," he says. "Let's make sure we do this and we do it right."
That preparation is going to require getting up-to-date information to legislators about the wastefulness of the policy — including the resources squandered (like Choi, both Chlapowski and Nicholson were in-demand linguists) as well as the money wasted on training military personnel who are then tossed away because of an irrelevant love life.
"It's really about getting data to them that just hasn't been on their radar," Chlapowski says. "It's about changing the vernacular around the issue."
It's also about allaying some legislative fears that a vote to repeal Don't Ask will turn into an election issue for progressives and moderates in swing districts.
"They see it as, 'You guys haven't done the work in our districts, yet'," Nicholson says.
It's going to require finding constituents and supportive veterans in those districts to speak out.
"You have to let the congressmen know that the level of intensity is just as strong among people supporting the repeal, and we vote just as hard," Chlapowski says.
And then there are real legislative concerns about the complex logistical problems that could come from a simple repeal.
"Their concern is what will happen on day two," Nicholson says. Servicemembers United is trying to help legislators craft a more comprehensive policy that provides more direction after a repeal is ordered.
With another campaign season around the corner, the two expect 2011 to be the next window for progress, but Chlapowski notes the same might have been assumed about 2009 before the bottom fell out of the global economy.
"It's going to depend on how successful everything else is," he says.