Travel

Photographer Vincent Cianni Tells the Stories of Gays in the Military

A look back at the damage Don't Ask Don't Tell did to the psyches of gay soldiers.

by Vincent Cianni, Words: Shanna Jones
Apr 10 2015, 4:00pm


Zachary Werth (left) and Dustin Hiersekorn (right).

Vincent Cianni's 2014 book Gays in the Military is a photographic and personal account of what life was like for people under the US military's ban on gay people, which started in 1949 and was followed by Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), which began in 1993. DADT was a compromise that said you could be gay in the military as long as you kept it a secret. If you had a same-sex partner, you weren't even allowed tell your fellow soldiers if they became ill or died.

It's no secret, then, that for gay people serving in the military, the road up until 2011—when the policy was scrapped—was rife with silent suffering, PTSD, and in some cases, even suicide. Today, serving in the military can still be an experience rife with prejudice. Cianni's book features photographs and interviews gathered on road trips across America over the course of three years, asking what made LGBT people want to serve an institution that neglected to accept them, and what long-term effects this had on them.

The subjects range from a 92-year-old WW2 veteran to those who recently served in Afghanistan. We called up Cianni to talk about about the book and his experience of meeting the people who were part of such an oppressive system.

VICE: Why do you have such an interest in this subject?
Vincent Cianni: I grew up during the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. I was a somewhat clueless but politically aware high school kid and hippie college student when the Vietnam conflict became the Vietnam War. My convictions were so strong that I was ready to flee to Canada if my number came up in the draft. It seems I spent most of my life uninterested in knowing about the military because I supported peace, the fight to end violence and injustice, and the sanctity of life. I couldn't understand why anyone would join the military, much less why gay people would join the military, an organization that shunned them.

In November 2009, I was listening to the local public radio station. The mother of a recently discharged gay 19-year-old private stationed in Iraq was being interviewed. When I heard Nathanael Bodon's mother speak about him with love, pride, and confidence, I thought of my own experiences having to hide my identity to family, friends, and colleagues and being the target of bigotry and hate crimes.

As a documentary photographer and storyteller I realized that no matter what my personal convictions and history were, the stories of LGBT servicemembers and veterans were the experiences and history of people who were denied their civil rights and, in many cases, were subjected to unjust treatment and human rights abuses. As part of this community that continued to struggle for equality, I could not turn my back on their humanity.

How psychologically damaging was the policy?
By its very nature, DADT was ambiguous and its enforcement was dependent on the attitudes and perceptions of the individual commandos, as well as the attitudes and perceptions of enlisted service members. Even tough DADT was intended to protect LGBT service members by prohibiting efforts to ask about their sexual identity.

Witch hunts were common in the 1980s because the military was downsizing and many LGBT people were hunted, followed, investigated, interrogated, and discharged along with drug addicts, criminals, and domestic violence perpetrators. The effects of the physical and sexual abuse and witch hunts were psychologically damaging.

Travis Jackson

Do these people feel a release now, after being able to tell their stories?
In many cases, the people I interviewed and photographed had no recourse to their discharge. At times, their entire record of serving in the military was expunged as if it never happened. Participating in the project served to regain their dignity and their history of serving. During the interviews they revisited difficult experiences, sometime experiences they had forgotten about. It was an emotional catharsis for many of them. The photographs evoke their humanity, their strengths, and weaknesses.

How did they feel about serving an institution that denied them acceptance?
Their reasons for joining the military spanned many reasons, just as with their heterosexual counterparts. It was an honor to serve their country. In the words of Joseph Rocha [a US Navy officer Cianni interviewed], "It never tarnished my love for the military, for the armed forces, for the service, for the service members. I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. People think, 'Just don't be gay, just don't let me know that [you're] gay,' but that removes a possibility of me having that photo of my loved one on my desk or talking about my anniversary, or having a human aspect to my life. That kind of self-denial and duality is terrible."

Which stories particularly stood out to you?
There were people like Kevin Brannaman—who was raped by his drill sergeant—and Travis Dobbs—also raped by his drill sergeant and then interrogated over a period of three days—who suffered horrible, degrading acts of sexual violence with the former and extreme interrogation measures resulting in psychological and emotional breakdowns.

Also, again, Joseph Rocha—he suffered continual harassment and human rights abuses while serving, including "being forced to simulate gay sex on camera multiple times with military working dogs in the room, being hosed down, being tied to a chair, left in a dog kennel with feces, and being forced to eat dog food."

Do you know what the situation is currently for transgender people wanting to serve in the military in America?
Interestingly enough, any information I have been given about the new military policy is worded "LGB." Transgender people still don't have recognition as being able to serve openly. If someone comes out today as transgender or is suspected to be transgender, they will be discharged.

Can you recall any stories you were told by gay people in the military about how they stayed mentally positive while serving?
Many of the service members and veterans simply focused on their job and the mission as a unit. They also turned to their friends, family, and, at times, their faith for strength since they were not able to confide in their mates or commanders, nor were they able to access counseling services or spiritual guidance.

Katie Miller [a former cadet] states it beautifully: "Seeing my former comrades react so strong to me that way is devastating, but leaving the people that I actually cared about and were supportive of me was more devastating."

Follow Shanna on Twitter. See more of Vincent's work and buy his photo book on his website.

Joanna Gasca: "When 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' went away, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I used to joke with my family that I'm going to need counseling after I retire because I wouldn't have to be in the closet. I am beginning to feel all the years of not being me coming to a head. Sometimes the tears fall and I can't stop them."

Greer Puckett: "I was in charge of 30 young sailors. Late that summer, one sailor told me he'd heard a rumor that I was gay. I said, 'I don't know what you've heard. It doesn't matter what you've heard. I expect you to do your job according to Navy regulations.' I wasn't going to be bullied by some young sailor."

Will Chandlee: "I experienced one major relationship with a Navy lieutenant from Arkansas. He was very good in the bed department. I took him home to meet my parents. One time he was staying with us in the country and he told me he was getting married; it was a girl he'd known all his life. It upset me; it came too unexpected."

Denny Meyer: "In 1968, everybody was in the closet, inside the military or outside the military. If you were found out, shipmates would throw you overboard just on general principle. If you lived, you were dishonorably discharged. You were ruined because in those days you couldn't ever get a job doing anything with that kind of discharge."

Zachary Werth (right): "I was seeing Dustin and I was scared because I was our provider. It's something I'd worked hard to achieve—my rank, my medals. I hate them for what they did. I don't understand how they could do that to someone. I would hope that my service mattered to someone."

Heather Davies: "The person I was dating was older than me and had been in the Navy quite a bit longer. She grew up under the old regime where there were active witch hunts to catch gay people in the act to get them out. I learned that culture and I was terrified the whole time I was in."