REVIEW

Bullets, Ballots and Bibles:
Documenting the History of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle in America" ('Coming Out Under Fire,' 'Ballot Measure 9' and 'One Nation Under God')

by Bruce R. Brasell

Cineaste v21, n4 (Fall, 1995):17

COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1995. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

Although 'coming out' continues to be the primary theme of documentaries produced about the gay and lesbian community, this focus is changing as filmmakers have begun to explore other aspects of gay and lesbian existence. The predominance of the coming-out narrative is understandable, given the relatively recent emergence of the gay and lesbian socio-political movement. Over the past decade, two significant changes have been occurring in gay and lesbian documentary film production. First, our concept of gays and lesbians as a 'community' has been replaced with the idea of many different gay and lesbian 'communities' (for example, the Harlem ball circuit and related houses in Paris is Burning and rural southerners in Greetings from Out Here). Filmmakers are now exploring the differences among ourselves rather than just our differences from or similarity to straight society. This shift in gay and lesbian film production parallels the shift in gay and lesbian politics from the idea that, "We're the same as straight people" to "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," a move from a plea for acceptance by straight society because we are all the same, regardless of sexual orientation, to a demand for straight society to 'grow up' when it comes to matters of sexual diversity.

The other change in gay and lesbian documentaries has involved a greater concern with history. Not history as in 'outing' historical figures, but a social history of gays and lesbians and the various ways they have been shaped into communities, both voluntarily and by force - for example, the military's anti-gay and lesbian policy during WWII, which many believe was a major factor contributing to the subsequent development of urban gay communities throughout the U.S. More importantly, history is being used as a means to understand the roots of the contemporary situation in which gays and lesbians in the U.S. find themselves, such as the military ban and continual opposition from fundamentalist Christians.

Three recent documentaries - Arthur Dong's Coming Out Under Fire, Heather MacDonald's Ballot Measure 9, and Teodoro Maniaci and Francine M. Rzeznik's One Nation Under God - reflect these thematic shifts, although each to a certain extent also embodies a traditional 'coming out' narrative. Coming Out Under Fire, for example, focuses on the dire consequences of being out in the military during WWII, Ballot Measure 9 the need to be out in order to effectively fight a proposed Oregon law permitting discrimination against gays and lesbians, and One Nation Under God the second coming out of religious ex-gays who renounce their prior belief about the incompatibility of their homosexuality and Christianity. Unlike such classic gay and lesbian documentaries as Word Is Out and Gay U.S.A., these films succeed in moving beyond the coming-out narrative, exploring how the military, judicial, and religious systems, respectively, function to exclude gays and lesbians from American society.

Arthur Dong's 1994 film, Coming Out Under Fire, based on Allan Berube's 1991 book, Coming Out Under Fire: The History Gay Men and Women in World War IIf, examines the wartime emergence of the American military's ban against gay and lesbian soldiers. The film charts not only this development but also the ban's postwar expansion to homosexuals in federal government jobs. The film opens and closes with the 1993 congressional hearings on gays and lesbians in the military, framing its historical inquiry within this contemporary debate which resulted in the infamous 1993 "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. In between, we are exposed to a barrage of talking-head interviews, archival film footage, and WWII military training film excerpts, all overlaid with a Voice-of-God narration.

The film is divided into two, the first half focusing on military recruitment and day to day life, the second half on military investigations and purges. We learn that at the beginning of the war the military initiated screening processes to weed out mentally ill military recruits because psychiatric casualties had been a major problem in WWI. As one would expect, these screening guidelines classified homosexuality as a mental illness, illustrated here with excerpts from mental-health films. One such clip describes the "Drawing a man test," where, over pen and ink drawings, the health-film narrator informs us that "The drawing a man test is a clinically valuable projective technique in the study of male homosexuality. Many homosexuals would draw a man with noticeable feminine characteristics." It is hard to believe today that such harebrained tests were taken seriously by psychologists at the time.

The film's Voice-of-God narrator tells us that "Under wartime pressure to use every available woman or man, military officials sometimes let known homosexuals serve and even found ways to utilize behavior ordinarily perceived as queer." One such use, illustrated with archival footage, was female drag shows to entertain the male troops. Tom Reddy, a Marine whose duty was to perform drag, casually tells how, like everyone else, "I wore a backpack even though it had costumes in it. But I was basically a Marine. It was never a problem." Such inclusion of gays and lesbians by military officials was the exception for, in the words of the voice-over narrator, "Most believed that despite the acute need for personnel, there was no place for homosexuals anywhere in the armed forces."

Military service provided many gay men and lesbians with their first opportunity to enjoy gay camaraderie. One soldier, identified only as Clark, describes how he and a friend printed The Myrtle Beach Bitch, a newsletter containing gay gossip that circulated around the globe. Marvin Liebman reminisces about his circle of military friends who imitated the language spoken by the characters in Dorothy Parker's short stories, which were officially circulated to military men through an armed services edition. Liebman and his friends mimicked Parker's style, including such phrases as "I could spit I was so angry," and punctuating their sentences with expressions such as "divine" and "darling." The interviewees describe not only the development of camaraderie among gay and lesbian soldiers but also a common language that differentiated them from straight troops.

The film points out that, "By the time troop strength reached ten million, it was clear screening had not kept them [homosexuals] out." Under existing policy, homosexuals could be discharged by a court-martial only for sodomy, so commanding officers demanded a new policy that would allow for a more efficient means of discharging homosexual personnel. By the middle of the war, military policymakers finally agreed on that policy: diagnosing homosexuals as psychopaths and disposing of them as undesirables. This new procedure meant that a man or woman could be discharged, in the words of the narrator, "Just for being homosexual, not for what they did." The military thus initiated its witch hunts and investigations of suspected homosexuals which continue to the present day. The number of homosexuals discharged from the military since WWII was approaching 100,000 when Congress held its 1993 hearings.

The personal stories shared in the second half of Coming Out Under Fire include individuals who were able to traverse the military process with a honorable discharge, as well as those who received "blue," section eight, dishonorable discharges. Clark was court-martialed for the gay newsletter he published and Marvin Liebman was dishonorably discharged for writing a letter to another soldier using the Dorothy Parker phrase "darling." The irony is that both incidents involved gay camp literature and highlight the penalties one could receive for participation in an unauthorized subculture.

Coming Out Under Fire, though at times an emotionally moving film about an important period in gay and lesbian history, suffers from its overreliance on often redundant voice-over narration, a result, perhaps, of the film being based on a book, with a tendency to tell rather than show. The film would have benefited from a greater emphasis on its historical footage, using voice-over merely to fill in the gaps, for the archival film featured in Coming Out Under Fire makes for amazing viewing. At one point, while Clark discusses his arrest and court-martial, a picture is shown of the cells in which he and his friends were confined - outdoor wire cages like those in which one would confine a hunting dog.

Although some gay and lesbian soldiers during WWII were treated like animals, in Heather MacDonald's Ballot Measure 9 some Oregon residents describe gays and lesbians as less than animals and would most likely have approved of such inhumane treatment. These Oregonians, however, were more concerned with preventing gays and lesbians in their state from receiving legal protection against discrimination, which, in their minds, was somehow equated with "special rights" rather than equal rights.

MacDonald's film examines the political battle over the eponymous state initiative, sponsored by the Oregon Citizen Alliance (OCA), which would prohibit any laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination. The measure would further mandate that all government agencies and schools recognize homosexuality as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse." Unlike Coming Out Under Fire, the film contains almost no archival footage or Voice-of-God narration. It is a chronicle of the events as they unfolded in the campaign, direct-cinema style, with the periodic inclusion of written text over the images, intercut with talking-head interviews.

Though Ballot Measure 9 allows leaders and supporters of both campaigns to speak out on their own behalf, only interviews of certain "No on 9" leaders have the appearance of traditional, well-lit, talking-head interviews. The rest of the footage, including all of the interviews of the "Yes on 9" leaders, looks as thought it was shot on the run. Whether intentional or not, these contrasting styles not only allow the "No on 9" leaders more screen time but also a more casual and relaxed atmosphere in which to present themselves. They appear to address the audience directly rather than the camera operator or other individuals in the room. Though most gay and lesbian audiences will find the comments made by the "Yes on 9" leaders and supporters alienating, the stylistic difference in the treatment of the two sides only serves to further increase this distance.

In the film, OCA Chairman Lon Mabon tells a lecture group that, "If we don't meet the challenge of this issue we are facing right now, and that is the homosexual issue, then we will not have America as we know it. And that is what this really comes down to, you know, a simple battle between right and wrong, between good and evil." Of course, "right" and "good" are perceived by the OCA and its supporters as traits applicable only to themselves. The OCA waged a campaign that demonized homosexuals, using as a strategy the graphic description of "homosexual" acts, documenting their widespread prevalence with phantom statistics. The film shows "Yes on 9" supporters implementing this strategy, with people responding receptively to it, whether canvassed in a parking lot or lured at a street fair booth.

As lesbian activist and "No on 9" organizer Donna Red Wing summarized the OCA's tactic, "They took the stereotypes a lot of people have and really enlarged them into grotesque caricatures. For many Oregonians that was the only information they had about gay and lesbian people." In a debate on the ballot measure, Charles Hinkle, an ACLU attorney and "No on 9" supporter, accuses his debate opponent and the OCA with hoping that, "If they take these two words, homosexual and pedophile, and repeat them together often enough, people will ignore the facts and vote their fears. It is a war they are waging alright, and truth was the first casualty."

A recurrent concern expressed by the "Yes on 9" supporters was the fear that gays and lesbians would recruit their family members and receive special preference over heterosexuals unless they were prohibited from being open about their sexuality. As Suzanne Pharr, a national organizer involved in the "No on 9" campaign, summarized it, "Their belief is that everybody is born heterosexual and then some of us chose to be wicked. And then they have that even more curious thing that, if you talk about homosexuality, then people will become homosexual." This fear of the spread of homosexuality, as if it was a contagious infection, is a commonly held belief by those "Yes on 9" supporters interviewed. One of the more curious revelations of the film is the way teenagers mimicked the concerns expressed by adults, often expressing the logical ramifications of certain positions which the adults might think but would never openly admit. During the question and answer period following a debate at Gladston High School, the comments and questions of the students showed an insight capable of simplifying the controversy to its basic core. One student told the "Yes on 9" speaker that, "Heterosexual sex can be just as dirty, just as unclean, and you can catch the same diseases," finally asking him with a hint of sarcasm, "What's your point?" Another student expressed concern, asking "Who's next? Is it blacks? Is it Native Americans? Is it Catholics? Is it Mormons? It is Jews? Is it people who are too tall or too fat? I want to know are you going to whittle away everybody piece by piece until they are all just like you? Who is next?"

The strategy implemented by the "No on 9" campaign was precisely to reach out to such other groups, including the minority African-American and Catholic communities of Oregon, who have experienced similar hatred. As the majority of such groups came out in support of gays and lesbians, their initial concerns and fears were validated as the hatred for gays and lesbians expanded to include them. For example, a local Catholic Church was vandalized after its priest made a public statement on why Catholics should oppose Ballot Measure 9. In a dramatic scene we see parishioners stop to read the walls of the church's sanctuary covered with spray- painted slogans like "Kill gays and Catholics," "Jews & Spics & Gays," and "OCA Yes on 9."

As the film progresses toward the November 3, 1992 election, violence directed toward gays and lesbians, as well as straight "No on 9" supporters, increases. This increased violence was believed by many to be the direct result of an atmosphere created by the OCA and its supporters in which it was acceptable to express hatred for gays and lesbians. The violence ranged from vandalism and death threats to fire bombings, the results of which we see in interviews with the victims. OCA leader Lon Mabon not only refused to accept his organization's responsibility for the creation of an atmosphere that facilitated such violence but also denied the violence, claiming, "I know a lot of the hate crimes are perpetrated by the homosexual community as a media tool."

The comments made by some of the teenagers in the high school debate provide one with hope for the next generation, but this hope is quickly dashed by subsequent interviews with teenagers on the street. Incarnating Suzanne Pharr's analysis, one teenage boy complains, "The little kids are going to see them all being gay and then they are going to want to be gay. But if we keep them off the streets, then they are going to grow up and be just like us." As the younger generation matures, the debate over the place of gays and lesbians in American society will surely continue because the younger population in Oregon mirrors the conflicts of the adult population. No generation gap here!

Unlike the gay and lesbian political struggle in Coming Out Under Fire, which ends in defeat, and Ballot Measure 9, which ends in victory, there is no resolution of the struggle explored in One Nation Under God, a feature documentary by Teodoro Maniaci and Francine M. Rzeznik. Rather, it explores the recycling by religious fundamentalists of discredited psychiatric treatments from the Sixties, reparative theory, to 'cure' homosexuals today. A whole cottage ministry known as the ex-gay movement, complete with organizations and star names, has sprung up within fundamentalist Christian circles. The film, composed primarily of interviews, with inserts of psychiatric educational films, archival footage, public lectures, photographs, graphics, and some minor Voice-of-God narration, explores this movement and its historical roots. Like Ballot Measure 9, the film allows representatives from both sides of the debate to speak on their own behalf. Similarly, like Ballot Measure 9 and unlike Coming Out Under Fire, any editorializing is made primarily not through a Voice-of-God narrator but instead by the juxtaposition of film clips of the two sides' public representations of themselves.

Although "Salvation through grace, not works" is a cornerstone of fundamentalist Christianity, sects within that persuasion believe that salvation is equated with not only religious conversion to Christianity but also sexual conversion to heterosexuality. After years of experience, however, the fundamentalist Christian ex-gay movement has learned that the two do not 'naturally' occur simultaneously, though only the thousands of those who have left the ex-gay movement as failures of such conversion are willing to openly admit it. As a result, prayer as a means to conversion came to be viewed by the ex-gay movement leaders as requiring some assistance from therapy, thereby opening the door for the introduction of psychiatry, which fundamentalist Christianity has traditionally scorned. As Dr. Ralph Blair, a Christian psychologist, states with a dry sense of humor in the film, "Over the history of the ex-gay movement, it has become a little more sophisticated. At first, it was just, 'You'll pray and change.' And then, 'It's a long struggle and you'll change.' And then, 'Maybe with some therapy, also, and prayer you'll change.'"

In their rush to define homosexuality as morally wrong, fundamentalist Christians have been quick to quote whatever passages of the Old Testament support their position, such as Leviticus 18:22, while ignoring other annoying passages such as Leviticus' prohibitions against eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics. Fundamentalist Christians have also applied this pick and choose attitude to their encounter with psychoanalysis. Michael Bussee, a former ex-gay who cofounded the ex-gay organization Exodus International with the man who would later become his lover, comments, "They just pull out a piece of psychoanalytical theory on psychosexual development and adopt it like it was gospel. And they disregard all the rest of it. But they quote it like it was scripture."

One of the best edited sequences in the film is the interweaving of a speech by Dr. Elizabeth Moberly, a counselor with the ex-gay organization Exodus International and an advocate of reparative theory, with clips from an old psychological film on homosexuality. As Ralph Blair mentions prior to the sequence, "Moberly's ideas are really just a rehash of some dated psychoanalytic ideas - the belief that people are homosexual because of their relationship with their parent." Moberly's words in the Nineties speech parrot almost word for word those of the speaker in the Sixties film clip as she states, "When a boy had a good relationship with his father, he never became a homosexual, whatever the mother was like."

The psychoanalytic naivete of the ex-gay leaders can be attributed to their lack of professional training, for, as one interviewee in the film notes, they are able to successfully circumvent state regulatory licensing laws for therapists through pastoral counseling exceptions. Not only do they believe homosexuality to be caused by the child's relationship with his or her parents, but also that the resultant homosexuality manifests itself in inappropriate gender alignment. They maintain a strict division as to appropriate roles and characteristics for each gender, conflating gender (masculine/feminine) with sex (male/female). These gender characteristics are, as one might expect, the traditional sex roles that since the Sixties and the emergence of the second wave of feminism, have finally begun to loosen. In one interview, Moberly fanatically remarks, "If you help a male homosexual build a more secure masculine identity, a lesbian build a more secure feminine identity, later on, down the line, they will be able to choose heterosexual relating."

At an Exodus conference shown in the film, Willa Medinger describes the goal of the "makeover" workshop she leads, in which women get their face made up, hair styled, and nails polished, as an attempt "To show them how pretty they can be, to get an image of themselves that maybe they never ever had." She continues, in all seriousness, "They haven't taken the steps of breaking free from the very butch appearance or an appearance which would cause men to back away from them or to not even want them." Ironically, Sy Rogers, the president of Exodus International, appears so butch in the film she could be mistaken for a man. Medinger proposes a softball game as the comparable 'makeover' for the men. The film counterpoises her comment with images of the Big Apple Gay and Lesbian Softball League playing a game, with one softball player summing it up lesbian build a more secure feminine identity, later on, down the line, they will be able to choose heterosexual relating."

At an Exodus conference shown in the film, Willa Medinger describes the goal of the "makeover" workshop she leads, in which women get their face made up, hair styled, and nails polished, as an attempt "To show them how pretty they can be, to get an image of themselves that maybe they never ever had." She continues, in all seriousness, "They haven't taken the steps of breaking free from the very butch appearance or an appearance which would cause men to back away from them or to not even want them." Ironically, Sy Rogers, the president of Exodus International, appears so butch in the film she could be mistaken for a man. Medinger proposes a softball game as the comparable 'makeover' for the men. The film counterpoises her comment with images of the Big Apple Gay and Lesbian Softball League playing a game, with one softball player summing it up succinctly, "Being gay is being gay, and playing softball is playing softball, and neither one has anything to do with the other."

Like the absurd descriptions of 'oversexed' homosexuals put forth by the "Yes on 9" supporters in Ballot Measure 9, gay and lesbian audiences typically find comical the beliefs espoused by the ex-gays and their everstraight supporters in One Nation Under God - that is, gay men are effeminate, lesbians hutch, and, if they performed 'appropriate' gender roles, they would be cured of their homosexuality. Yet, herein lies the danger, for while it is easy to dismiss these absurd statements, many heterosexuals, unfortunately, as well as some homosexuals, hear logic where we hear absurdity.

Though Ballot Measure 9 and One Nation Unde r God illustrate two different ways in which fundamentalist Christians openly flaunt hatredtoward homosexuals and attempt to eliminate them - in the former film by legal prohibition and, in the latter, by religious conversion which includes a parallel conversion to heterosexuality - the films do not analyze these attitudes. Though they present two important case histories of fundamentalist Christians' attacks on gays and lesbians, they do not attempt to help us understand the underlying reasons. Both films, however, do contain within them the material for beginning such an analysis. It is politically important to understand where fundamentalist Christians are coming from because not only are they one of our primary adversaries, but their religious/moral arguments are also typically borrowed by many of our other adversaries as justification for their anti-gay and lesbian stances.

The emergence of identity politics since the Sixties solidified the general trend begun around the turn of the century to view homosexuality as an internal state 'afflicting' a few rather than an external actioncapable of being performed by all. Such a transition, however, cannot be fully sustained when discussing fundamentalist Christianity. Though fundamentalist beliefs allow for a view of homosexuality as being an "infirmity of the flesh," to quote Galatians 4:13, through which the homosexual (like the apostle Paul) must persevere, it also views certain activities as sinful, such as drinking alcohol and sexual relations (except in monogamous heterosexual same-race marriage).

The use of the term 'homosexual behavior' by fundamentalist Christians is a strategic move to return to the older definition of homosexuality as an action, comparable to murder, to use one of the favorite comparisons voiced in Ballot Measure 9 and One Nation Under God. This softens the negative perception that they are against individuals by allowing the rationale of "Love the sinner, hate the sin." If homosexuality is defined in terms of behavior, it can be classified as sinand, therefore, is susceptible to personal change. All homosexuals have to do is just say no and stop doing it. But if it is behavior, then not only is the homosexual susceptible to change, but the reverse is also true, the heterosexual is susceptible to being converted to homosexuality. Thus, fundamentalist Christians' fear of recruitment by gays and lesbians is voiced repeatedly in Ballot Measure 9.

The hostility many fundamentalist Christians feel toward gays and lesbians can be attributed to a fear of seeing in them their own mirror image. The continuation of fundamentalist Christianity is based on a theology of conversion in which nonbelievers are proselytized into the faith from other 'false' religions or nonbelief in God. To increase their numbers, they must witness to others and seek out converts - in other words, recruit. More importantly, their faith is based on a theology that requires them to evangelize as a sign that they are truly born again because such actions are a manifestation of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, proof of a rebirth. Because fundamentalist Christianity is grounded in a theology of conversion, even one's own children must be recruited into the faith through baptism and public confession of their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior.

Similarly, because gays and lesbians cannot reproduce, fundamentalist Christians assume they must reproduce by sexual proselytization. Fundamentalist Christian witnessing can be viewed as a religious form of cruising. Witnessing and cruising are both about seduction, spiritual and sexual, respectively. Fundamentalist Christians seek to convert, gays and lesbians to pervert. Fundamentalist Christians announce the acceptance of the Christian faith through testimony of being born again, while gays and lesbians come out. Both are announcements of a new birth, a new beginning, a turning away from a false self to a pure, true one, a renouncement of an old life and the embrace of a new one. Gays and lesbians cruise for sexual disciples while fundamentalist Christians witness for religious ones.

To discuss gays and lesbians on one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other, however, is to deny their coexistence in the same individual and to accept that sense of mutual exclusiveness that fundamentalist Christians posit. But can a gay or lesbian be a Christian? Such a phenomenon as the Christian ex-gay movement is based on a belief that the two are incompatible, and that, therefore, a choice must be made between them.

In One Nation Under God, the coming-out narrative is given a new twist in the story of Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper. We are first introduced to Bussee and Cooper during a lecture performance where they describe Exodus International, the ex-gay organization which they cofounded. The clip, in black and white, is framed within the film as though they are speaking in the present tense, so one assumes they are ex- gays. As the telling of their story progresses, however, we learn, in Bussee's words, "In 1979, at the peak of our ministry, after being instrumental in starting Exodus, we found that something unexpected had happened. We realized we had fallen in love with each other. And that we couldn't keep saying any longer that we were ex-gay." At the point Bussee says, "Something unexpected happened," the image of Bussee and Cooper, like Dorothy's arrival in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz, turns from black and white into color, visualizing what could be described as a second coming out and a second religious conversion occurring simultaneously, integrating their gayness and their Christian faith. Bussee and Cooper come out as former ex-gays.

But One Nation Under God does not limit its use of the coming-out narrative to just ex-gays coming out as former ex-gays. After seeing Gerald Davison in old clips from a 1971 black-and-white film titled Behavior Therapy for Homosexuality in which he practices reparative therapy on gay men, we are introduced to him again in the present as a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California where he confesses he no longer advocates such therapy. Later in the film he states, "The very existence of change of orientation programs perpetuate the idea that homosexuality is bad. And this is one of the reasons that I have been against these programs being available. They send the message to people that this change is worthy and we strongly urge this to be changed and, in fact, we may insist on this being changed. And, if you were really a good person, you would want to change." In One Nation Under God, not only do ex-gays come out as former ex-gays, but the professional reparative therapist comes out as an ex-reparative therapist. Though Coming Out Under Fire, Ballot Measure 9, and One Nation Under God are traditional documentary films in their structure and do not break any new stylistic ground, they do contribute to the growing trend expanding the themes of gay and lesbian documentaries. Just as fundamentalist Christians have been turning their cameras on us ever since The Gay Agenda, these documentaries begin the process of turning our cameras on them.

Distribution Sources:

Coming Out Under Fire and Ballot Measure 9 are distributed by Zeitgeist Films, 247 Centre Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10013, phone (212) 274-1989.

One Nation Under God is distributed by First Run Features, 153 Waverly Place, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10014, phone (212) 243-0600.

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