05/01/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Queering Military Media

What will it take, besides gumption, to make a post-gay military film? An exceedingly profitable and prominent, military-approved drama, the recently released Act of Valor, doesn't make much of the death of "don't ask, don't tell." Instead, it singles out straight fatherhood as a motivating force for soldiers. At a time when photographic evidence of same-sex soldierly partnerships are circulating widely and without threat of official reprisal, such a representational tactic seems, at best, regressive.

However, as the worldwide grosses of Act of Valor approach the $100-million mark, we might pause to reflect upon the film's significance for the post-"don't ask, don't tell" armed forces. A feature film rooted in comprehensive reenactment (or so its spectator is told), Act of Valor would seem to support an assumption central to the controversies surrounding the life, and recent death, of the aforementioned policy: namely, that the survival of same-sex desire in military settings makes questions of status (what one "is" sexually) inseparable from questions of conduct (what one "does" militaristically).

Proponents of the policy once suggested that, in the American armed forces, to self-define as gay (or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender) would be to achieve a measure of liberation and autonomy that, while well-suited to pride parades, contradicts martial ideals. The policy's opponents, meanwhile, maintained that status, even if shouted from the tops of the tallest trees, could do little to dislodge the accoutrements of proper conduct. If anything, argued such commentators, conduct could only benefit from open declarations of sexual identities, because (according to liberal-positivist presumption) unrepressed people are observably happier than their constipated kin, and therefore better equipped to competently carry out tasks, even martial ones.

But where does Act of Valor fit into the equation? Why bring it up in this context? Well, whatever its other qualifications, Act of Valor can claim the curious distinction of being the first major, military-approved film to be conceived, produced, and released following the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Vetted by the Navy SEALS who "play themselves," the ideals of verisimilitude that the film offers are rather familiar to anyone who's seen more than a few military-produced documentaries. Like so many training films made during the aggressively (if opportunistically and inconsistently) anti-fascist '40s, Act of Valor focuses on ideals of rugged individualism as dispersed among relative ethnic and social diversity. But it devotes the most narrative energy to explicating the importance of the heterosexist family setups back home, the wives and children who lend the determinative labels "husband" and "father" to the fellows who fight.

For those of us obsessed with cinematic depictions of same-sex erotic desire, the death of "don't ask, don't tell" has triggered questions about how military films -- both the institution's official documentaries and those narrative fiction features that it facilitates -- will figure the fresh legality of homosexuality as an ongoing, openly spoken-about topic among active-duty soldiers. The military has already commenced production on a series of training films designed to familiarize all personnel with the newly permissible social conditions in which coming out as gay cannot be considered cause for criminalization.

On the contrary, "I am gay" is a phrase that currently fits the official Department of Defense definition of an acceptable social statement, one suited to a martial setting. How long this will last is anyone's guess, but lest we believe that only a politician as openly anti-gay as Rick Perry is capable of transforming civilian nostalgia for "don't ask, don't tell" into something more powerful, it's important to note that the military itself has a role to play in this process, that the media it produces can and will serve as vital and potentially influential social documents.

What is perhaps most alarming about recent news reports about the military's post-"don't ask, don't tell" educational imperatives is their revelation of the dominant role that heterosexist reassurance plays in such pedagogical processes. By "heterosexist reassurance," I mean the kind of quelling of straight anxieties that comes in the form of a promise that the military is not suddenly "pro-gay," and that decriminalizing an articulated identity is not tantamount to celebrating it. Over a year ago, in a report for The Huffington Post, Andrea Stone noted that the military's operative mandate in the immediate aftermath of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" seemed focused on maintaining equanimity among personnel, primarily by promising "NOT to change beliefs."

But what beliefs? Whose beliefs? Recent news reports focusing on the queer-conscious classroom sessions taking place at prominent army bases suggest, sadly, that a single question will structure forthcoming, gay-themed military documentaries: do straight soldiers, who may or may not be homophobic, and whose disdain for open declarations of gay identities may or may not have religious roots, need to alter their beliefs and become pro-queer?

Footage of military tutorials designed to address this topic provides, via pontificating officials, a telling answer to that last question: No, straight soldiers won't be forced to "embrace" homosexuality; they will merely be asked to keep in mind that non-straight soldiers now have every right to openly discuss their identities, however much such discussions might hurt the ears of their interlocutors. Apart from such footage, there currently exists no widely circulated audiovisual record of how the military is making social sense of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

As a gay man with ties to the military, I find that troubling; as a film historian, I find it sad. I've spent countless hours researching, watching, and writing about the American military documentaries of yore, the sorts of pre-"don't ask, don't tell" training films that figured homosexuality as a fact of life, not because they were necessarily interested in offering straight soldiers a negative example, but simply because they could. A short film from 1943, titled Introduction to the Army, takes us inside the induction sessions at which sexual preferences are openly discussed. The 1945 Navy film Easy to Get is an integrationist short whose surprisingly racist argument is that black men should not only serve alongside white men but should also observe and imitate the latter's sexual practices (so as to avoid contracting STDs); viewed today, it plays like a primer for how gay men might profitably watch straight porn. Yet another 1943 production, titled Latrinograms, makes clear the connections between bathroom graffiti and erotic comprehension (the broader the comprehension, the better and wittier the writing on the walls).

Seven decades later, our military is seemingly most concerned with healing the straight soldier's trauma over the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." I can't help but think that the short films of the 1940s would kick the cautious shins of their descendants. I hope, in the defense archives of the future, to find some post-"don't ask, don't tell" documentaries that are also, for good measure, post-gay.