HBO's 'History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Recounts the Undoing of a Military Mistake


When Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, approached longtime directing duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Faye) about chronicling the history of the U.S. military’s infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, their response was initially tepid.
“We didn’t understand what the big deal was,” says Bailey, who, with Barbato, hosted the world premiere of The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Sept. 14 at the Castro Theatre. “What was there to tell? We didn’t completely understand the nonsense at the heart of the law.

“The craziest part of it was the ‘Queen for a Day’ provision, which allowed soldiers to have gay sex as long as they could prove subsequently that they’re not gay – they were simply having a homosexual emergency, I guess. Then again, I’m not sure that’s any crazier than the law itself. It forced people to hide and to lie, which breaches the military code of conduct.”
While the military has long maintained a closed-door policy to openly gay, lesbian or bisexual applicants, former President Bill Clinton introduced the “DADT” policy in December 1993 after campaigning on a promise to allow all otherwise qualified American citizens to serve. Opposed by Congress, he adopted the less controversial approach of prohibiting members of the armed forces from disclosing their sexual orientation.
Almost 18 years later, on Sept. 20, the policy was repealed – a long-overdue victory for common sense, and a particularly timely turn of events for Bailey and Barbato, who eventually warmed to Nevins’ Strange History project before they knew if or when “DADT” would be overturned.
“This is a law that never should have been on the books for one day, let alone almost 18 years,” says Bailey, who describes past collaborations with Barbato (including this year’s Becoming Chaz, their intimate portrait of Chaz Bono’s transition to manhood) as personality-driven and generally apolitical.
“The people at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network knew within weeks of the law’s passing that it would take years if not decades to get it repealed, and they worked toward that from that moment. What ultimately happened was very triumphant. At the end, it came down to a single day, on which 17 years of work would either go down the drain or the law would be repealed. The process was very 11th-hour.”
“We all think the political process is broken, and rarely do things come together in a positive way, so we didn't count on that,” adds Barbato, who believes the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states could be the next milestone in the fight for homosexual civil liberties.
“The military and marriage – these are two institutions that especially heterosexual men seem to need to hold onto as if it’s their own, as if it defines them. But the military is now open to everyone to serve openly, to have the right to die for our country and be honest and open about who we are. So we got our happy ending, and I think that’s going to help make marriage open to gays and lesbians.”
Featuring archival news footage and interviews with policy experts and key personnel at the Pentagon – which Barbato jokingly describes as difficult to penetrate, but “the gayest place on earth” once you’re inside – The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debuted on HBO on Sept. 20. It will air again during upcoming weeks. For showtimes, visit HBO online.

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