Coming Out Under Fire (1994): Arthur Dong’s Significant Docu of Gays in the Military

Arthur Dong’s Coming Out Under Fire makes a strong contribution to the ongoing debate of gays and lesbians in the military by viewing the issue from a vantage historical perspective.

Focusing on a group of undaunted homosexuals who served as soldiers in World War II, it contextualizes President Clinton’s l993 effort to lift the ban on gays in the military and the ongoing furious national debate.

Based on the 1990 critically acclaimed book, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, by Allan Berube, who served as docu’s historian and co-writer, the documentary masterfully interweaves the tales of nine courageous men and women, all sharing in detail their personal memories of daily military life.

“They made you lie,” says one man, “they made you live an invisible life.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” became by necessity the motto of patriotic homosexuals who, like many other of their countrymen at the time, were initially excited at giving the best years of their lives to WWII.

Despite the variability in the interviewees’ backgrounds, motivations to join the war effort, and their military careers, the themes that unite the stories is those of strength and willingness to serve the country in the face of oppression and humiliating treatment. Docu shows that the military proved most “resourceful” in its methods, subjecting known gays and lesbians to dehumanizing interrogations, medical examinations, incarceration in “queer stockades” and hospitals for the criminal and mentally insane, stigmatization as “sex perverts.”

The overall tone is serious and investigative, but documentary contains compelling personal stories that make it riveting to watch, and even entertaining. They devised subtle ways to identify other gays and communicate through newsletters that used the campy Dorothy Parker lingo; one publication was called “Myrtle Bitch.” A woman who served as WAC fondly recalls her infatuation and first romance with another woman. However, being black and gay was a “double whammy,” as one member mournfully testifies.

Dong, who made the l983 Oscar-nominated Sewing Woman, a touching portrait of his mother’s emigration from China to the U.S., endows his work with the right balance between a factual illumination of a shameful chapter in American history and a lighter touch in dealing with the human stories.

Framing the documentary are dramatic scenes from the 1993 Senate hearings, which expose how the American government continues to perpetuate its half-a-century ideology–and practice–of discriminating homosexual service members. This contemporary evidence lends greater poignancy to the numerous cases of “dishonorable discharge” of valiant homosexuals.

Veronica Selver’s editing of archival footage of medical examinations, psychiatric sessions, sex education lectures, statistics, and interviews is poignant.

Credits:

Produced and directed by Arthur Dong
Written by Dong and Allan Bérubé
Narrated by Salome Jens
Music by Mark Adler
Cinematography: Stephen Lighthill
Edited by Veronica Selver
Distributed by Deep Focus Films
Release date: 1994
Running time: 71 minutes