09/19/2011 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'The Strange History Of Don't Ask, Don't Tell': Documentary Is A Gripping Look Into The Creation & Repeal Of DADT

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, at midnight, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) goes into effect. Yet, the stories of the nearly 14,000 service men who were wrongly discharged since the law's creation in 1993 has largely gone untold -- until now.

At midnight, HBO will premiere "The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- a gripping tale of the U.S. military's ban on gays and lesbians from its implementation in 1993 to its riveting repeal in 2010.

Directed by Emmy winners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the HBO documentary illustrates the tumultuous evolution of the DADT legislation -- from the military's ban of homosexuals during World War II, to Bill Clinton's ambitious promise to lift the ban as a young presidential candidate in 1992 and the eventual political compromise that led to the creation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 1993, which forced many soldiers to lie about their sexual orientation and live in secrecy for fear of being discharged.

However, the filming began two years ago, originally, as an exploration of homophobia in the military, and Bailey and Barbato spent months finding gay service members who were willing to talk to the camera -- with their identities hidden.

"Our original thought was to make a documentary about the institutionalized homophobia within the military because none of us actually thought the repeal would happen," said Bailey at the Monday (Sept. 19) screening of the documentary.

But as the political lobbying surrounding the law's repeal began to heat up in 2010, the filmmakers began to focus their lenses on the achievements being made in the nation's capitol, specifically spotlighting the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and its executive director Aubrey Sarvis.

"We wanted to be the faces of the nearly 14,000 individuals who were being wronged by DADT, and couldn't stand up for themselves," said Sarvis at the screening (Sept. 19).

And that anonymity does not go unnoticed, as Bailey and Barbato interview a handful of anonymous soldiers using clever camera angles that never reveal the soldiers' identities. Even though we cannot see their faces, we can feel their emotions.

"I love my country, and I'm going to fight to defend it even if my country is not going to do the same for me," one servicewoman said, her face hidden to the viewer.

These unidentified servicemembers provide an interesting take on military life in the closet -- how the implications of DADT prohibit them from normal conversations and force them to lie about their home life.

And while the documentary might do little to sway those who believe homosexuals should be banned from serving openly in the military, it will educate the millions of Americans who might not know much at all about the DADT legislation.

Since the DADT policy was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, 13,369 active servicemembers were discharged because of it, including 54 linguists fluent in Arabic who were discharged before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Furthermore, the film reveals several strange-but-true parts of the DADT legislation, such as the "queen for a day" presumption, which allows straight men to have gay sex as long as they could prove that they were not gay. However, military officials could search through hundreds of private emails to find incriminating evidence that a service member could potentially be gay -- and therefore, be a threat to unit cohesion and military moral.

The film also features interviews with some of the more well-known players in the DADT repeal, including former Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-Pennsylvania), an Iraq war veteran who was one of the first to push for repeal, and three high-ranking servicemembers of the U.S. military who were discharged under the law and subsequently, took their stories public.

For example, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach was one of the most decorated and distinguished service members to be questioned by the military based on his sexual orientation. Fehrenbach's 20 year military career included missions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. He received 30 awards and nine air medals during his active service -- and the U.S. military had invested millions of dollars into his career.

Fehrenbach came out on national TV in 2009 after the Air Force started discharge proceedings, which were ultimately stalled by the DADT repeal process.

"I drop bombs for a living," Fehrenbach said in the film, "but these were the biggest three bombs I had ever dropped." It seems like for this decorated serviceman, and the estimated one million living gay veterans, DADT permeates civilian life, as discharged servicemen are branded as gay on their discharge papers, which can then lead to difficulty finding new jobs.

Perhaps this is one of holes in Bailey and Barbato's film; the documentary does little to address what the aftermath of the DADT repeal means for the nearly 14,000 servicemen and servicewomen who were discharged because they were gay. According to Sarvis, SLDN is working with the servicemembers to correct their discharge papers. Furthermore, the question of how safe it is for a serviceman to be open about his or her sexual orientation is never addressed.

"Each individual will need to make his or her own decision on how to approach the matter," said Sarvis. Meanwhile, a discharged naval officer, who is currently in court to be reinstated to his former postion, shared a very personal story of how his friend, a fellow gay serviceman, is celebrating the repeal on Sept. 20.

"He's not going to make it a big thing and come out to everyone. He's just going to put a photo of his partner on his desk at work. That's what is most important to him."

It's hard to imagine how something so subtle as a photo could take decades to accomplish, and it makes the story of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich even more poignant. Matlovich, a discharged gay Vietnam veteran who went up against the military's ban on homosexuals in the late 1970s. During his time in Vietnam, Matlovich earned both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star before the military accused him of being a homosexual, and he was discharged in 1975.

Matlovich appeared on the cover of the September 8, 1975, issue of Time magazine, with the cover title "I Am a Homosexual," making him a symbol for thousands of gay and lesbian service members. Although he ultimately won his lawsuit, the fight to lift the ban on gays in the military was far from over.

In 1988 Matlovich died, and his tombstone -- very poignantly -- reads: "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one."

"The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell" debuts Sept. 20 at midnight, followed by a primetime replay Tues., Sept. 20, at 8PM ET on HBO.