By Greg Hernandez
There was raw emotion on screen and on stage when the short film Our Service, Our Stories had its world premiere on November 8 at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre.
The 21-minute documentary explores the lives and unique perspectives of LGBT veterans ages 50 and older before, during, and after their military service. There are more than one million LGBT American eterans and more than 793,000 active duty and reserve LGBT service members.
“I had never, until the film, talked about my discharge from the service,” said Neil Beecher, a member of the Center’s LGBT Senior Veterans initiative who spent four months working on the film and participated in a panel discussion which followed the screening. “The film brought it out. It was very hard for a number of years going around with the (dishonorable) discharge burden. But I survived.”
Beecher was kicked out of the U.S. Navy in 1959 when he was suspected of being gay. But he met his husband—a fellow soldier—during his three years of service, and they went on to spend 56 years together.
This documentary activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. The CAC awarded a $16,200 grant to the Center’s Senior Services department.
The veterans filmed each other’s stories then interviewed fellow servicemembers during a Veteran’s Stand Down event hosted by the Center in September. The interview subjects represent all four branches of the military with their years of service spanning from 1951-2017.
“All of us had a story to tell, and the story we discovered was a common story: situations in the service pertaining to our sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Warren Tymony who served in the Air Force from 1971-73. “The [short film]format enabled us to share our stories with each other and with future generations.”
“The more I talk, the more I understand what happened”
In the movie, Tymony revealed he was raped by an officer while on base and eventually confronted the man which put a stop to the attacks. Tymony shared he eventually arranged a scenario where he would be discovered to be gay so that he could be discharged.
“I didn’t discuss or address my military sexual trauma for over 40 years,” he said during the post-movie discussion. “In the military you are taught to soldier on, man up. Men just didn’t discuss this. But it triggered my survival mechanism, and I never allowed any kind of abuse or domination to occur to me for the rest of my life.”
Belita Edwards, who served in the Army from 1975-81, also opened up about her abuse in the documentary.
“I don’t hold anything back,” she told the audience. “The more I talk, the more I understand what happened. I hope the film will let younger female members of the military know that there is help out there. You don’t have to put up with abuse.”
For many of the veterans-turned-filmmakers, it was their first time positioning and holding a video camera and using digital editing software. The team worked under the guidance of an award-winning filmmaker Andrew Putschoegl (BFFs, HAM: A Musical Memoir).
“They want it to be a lasting legacy of their service and what it means to be LGBT in the military,” Putschoegl tells LGBT News Now. “The film can help future generations understand what it was like, and what LGBT people went through, serving our country before it was okay to be open about who you are.”
“The military is clearly not one thing to all people”
While overseeing production of the film, Putschoegl learned LGBT people have had a broad range of experiences in the military no matter which era in which they served.
“The military is clearly not one thing to all people,” he said. “To witness some of the participants have visceral emotional responses—when recalling traumatic memories—in contrast with people who feel very fondly about their time in the service is really interesting. It speaks to the diversity of experiences in the military.”
While the Renberg Theatre event was the film’s first official screening, it will not be the last. The documentary will be submitted to a number of film festivals for consideration as well as to various archives and museums. It is expected to eventually be available online.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the official U.S. policy barring openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from military service, was repealed in 2011. But in April 2018, the Trump Administration began implementing a ban on transgender people serving openly.
“It took us quite awhile after our active service to speak up, but we are speaking up now,” Tymony said. “Many of us have fought for the right of current servicemembers to be out and to be proud. Current members, you stand on the shoulders of giants. We are those giants.”