The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Revolution Was Televised
In 2008, Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the staid Brookings Institution, published a monograph cheekily titled “How TheReal World Ended ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” He began by noting that in 1992, the same year that presidential candidate Bill Clinton proposed the idea of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans serving openly in the military, “MTV famously launched the story of ‘seven strangers, picked to live in a loft, and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite … and start getting real.’” A year later, Clinton’s idea of lifting the ban “had mutated into the policy known as ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ … In contrast to Clinton’s policy, MTV’s new show thrived.”
The Real World: New Orleans, which aired in 2000, featured a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” storyline: The charismatic and handsome Danny Roberts was dating an Army Ranger. MTV obscured the officer’s face so the Pentagon could not track him down and discharge him. Under the law, any service member who came out as lesbian, gay or bisexual to anyone, anywhere, anytime, could be discharged. The deliberate obscuring of the soldier’s face demonstrated the real the dangers of living under “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” In 2003, after he left the military, Paul Dill revealed his identity on an MTV special.
The Real World was not the first or last television show, film or theater production that shined a light on “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Collectively, though, they helped shift public opinion about gay Americans, including those willing to die for our nation. In 1993, a majority of Americans and 90% of service members opposed gay serving openly. By 2010, 78% of the public and 70% of service members said it was no big deal. Here are some of the shows that paved the way.
In 1994, one year after “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was enacted, Arthur Dong produced Coming Out Under Fire, a documentary based on the 1990 book of the same name by Allan Bérubé. Through interviews, the film brought to life the stories of lesbian, gay, and bisexual World War II veterans, the greatest generation. It showed the joy men and women from across the United States discovered in finding others like themselves, and the pain of being sent home in shame (or so it was seen at the time) if unmasked.
In 1995, NBC aired Serving in Silence, which told the story of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, and her partner, Diane Divelbess, and depicted how the gay ban threated to derail Cammermeyer’s career. Starring Glenn Close and Judy Davis and produced by Barbra Streisand, it received three Emmy Awards and was one of the biggest breakthroughs in LGBT film at the time.
In 2001, Marc Wolf brought his one-man show Another American: Asking & Telling to Washington. He developed the play after driving cross-country, interviewing dozens of veterans who were both for and against “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” He retold the stories in a series of vignettes that gave the audience a deep appreciation for the horrors that lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members faced and the opinions of those who believed in the ban. Marc won an Obie Award for his off-Broadway show. He also won the Helen Hayes Award, the equivalent prize for theater in the nation’s capital.
In 2003, Reichen Lehmkuhl (who now goes by the last name Kuhl) and his then-partner Chip Arndt won season four of The Amazing Race — a show that has garnered 15 Emmy Award and millions of viewers. In interviews and in a 2006 autobiography, Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the former Air Force captain captured the double life gays had to live while serving our nation. “I was living my own doppelganger every single day,” he wrote. “I had my secret gay life and I had my open ‘normal’ life, with a beautiful girlfriend and a pressed uniform. Everyone believed that avoiding the punishment for being caught in a gay bar was worth the lies we would have to tell.”
Also in 2003, the premium cable network Showtime aired Soldier’s Girl — the love story of Private First Class Barry Winchell and Calpernia Addams, a transgender performer at a Nashville nightclub. Their relationship was a stark contrast to the vitriol Winchell experienced from the two soldiers at Fort Campbell who killed him because they thought he was gay. The American Film Institute named Soldier’s Girl as one of the 10 best television programs of the year. It also won a Peabody Award, given for presentations of “stories that defend the public interest, encourage empathy with others, and teach us to expand our understanding of the world around us.”
On her website, Addams describes what the film captured: “I was a showgirl, he was in the Army, both of us at defining moments in our lives, and we fell into an intense, private relationship almost immediately. … We only had a short time together, enough time to begin to hope that things could progress and life could change from loneliness to love, and then he was murdered by two fellow soldiers.”
Four years later, Lifetime aired Any Mother’s Son, about the brutal murder in 1992 of Petty Officer Allen Schindler, starring Bonnie Bedelia as Allen’s mother, Dorothy Hajdys. “The biggest reason I wanted the movie made was because I wanted people to understand how hard it was for me to come to grips that Allen really was gay, and to realize that gays aren’t these weirdos that you see,” Hajdys told television critics during a press conference about the film. “They are very loving and caring people. And for people to realize that Allen could have been any mother’s son.”
In 2007, Showtime’s drama The L Word, about the intertwined lives of a group of lesbians and bisexuals living in Los Angeles, introduced a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” storyline. Rose Rollins portrayed Tasha Williams, a soldier in the National Guard who had served in Iraq and was simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and being threatened with discharge after a fellow soldier accuses her of being a lesbian.
While these productions brought to life the experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, other shows truly permeated American culture. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her eponymous ABC comedy — a move that, according to Peter Singer, may have “short-circuited her popular sitcom and movie career at the time.” Six years later, though, she launched The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which has won 64 Emmys and for years was one of the most popular shows on daytime television.
President Obama presented DeGeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, saying, “It’s easy to forget now — when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law — just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago…. Just how important it was, not just for the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, to see somebody we liked so much … challenge our own assumptions.”
Will & Grace aired from 1998 to 2006. It was a top 20 show for half of its run and won 18 Emmy Awards. In 2012, in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden said that he credited Will & Grace with changing Americans’ “evolving” attitudes toward gays, adding that the show “probably did more to educate the American publicthan almost anything anybody has ever done so far.”
Not everyone saw the evolution of these attitudes, thanks to popular culture, as something positive. In 1996, Justice Antonin Scalia decried the culture wars in a scathing dissent in Romer v. Evans, the 6–3 Supreme Court decision striking down as unconstitutional an amendment to Colorado’s constitution that prohibited local governments from making efforts to protect gays, lesbians, and bisexuals against discrimination. “The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite,” Scalia wrote, arguing that the growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans would override the religious beliefs of others.
Scalia was wrong to assert that religious beliefs trump civil rights, though it remains to be seen where the Supreme Court will ultimately land on that proposition. He was correct, however, that America was battling for its better angels. We still are. Corporations like Hobby Lobby have successfully asserted the right to discriminate against employees on religious grounds, a trend that has troubling momentum. State legislatures have passed more anti-transgender bills this year than at any point before.
Television, film and theater that can hold the light up to truth and hate, can educate and enlighten, and can sort facts from fear. While art is not the only or even deciding factor in political debates, it creates space for important conversations to take place. The cultural revolution from Coming Out Under Fire to The L Word that depicted gay Americans as part of the fabric of the nation played a crucial role in the fight for equality in the military and in marriage. It can and must continue to do so.