“The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” airs tonight on HBO

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HBO Documentary Films is premiering The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell tonight at midnight as the repeal takes effect [Oops! Spoiler!], with another showing Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. for those who didn’t catch it the first time around or who just feel like taking a victory lap.

The film was shot during the two years leading up to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and weaves together historic footage, commentary from insiders in the legislative jockeying, interviews with current members of the military (often with their identities concealed), and Congressional hearings that border on maddening.

The Strange History does, in fact, open with a good broad-stroke history lesson, covering the fact that, duh, there have been one or two non-straights in the military since the time of Alexander the Great, and showing the surprising origins of the World War II ban on gays in the military. In fact, the documentary makes a good case that the gay rights movement in America has been inadvertently launched and re-launched by the military’s restrictions.

After grounding us in the more distant past, the film segues into the fury that surrounded President Bill Clinton’s attempt to get the ban on “homosexual conduct” in the military repealed. At one point we learn that Congress received 434,000 calls supporting the ban in a single day. Just in case you were wondering how bigots occupy themselves when they aren’t frothing or gibbering.

The filmmakers do an excellent (and depressing) job of showing how legislative sausage is made and how far removed Congressional hearings can get from reality. It’s amazing what grown men come up with to accommodate the prejudices that are already wedged into the system and justify their own inchoate heebie-jeebies.

Keep inexpensive knickknacks on hand for throwing at the wall when you watch Senator John Warner lecture Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer on how she should be willing to serve her country and just shut up about the being-respected-as-a-whole-human-being thing so he doesn’t have to deal with the idea of men showering together.

Wow, are our elected leaders concerned about showering.

Though it is well researched and presents the story of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law in an immediately accessible way, The Strange History isn’t perfect. While it touches on the cases of Lieutenant Dan Choi and Colonel Cammermeyer, most of the faces and voices in the film are those of white men. It’s a frustrating continuation of the way most media outlets have covered DADT, when the reality is that women, and African-American women, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by the policy.

There are a few other troubling moments of exclusion. At one point the statistic that “60,000 gay Americans” are currently serving” appears on the screen. Does that include lesbians and bisexuals or not? It’s a small quibble for a film that’s so clearly on our side, but on the other hand, if there were ever a time not to ignore two groups that are frequently glossed over, this would seem to be it.


But for the most part, you won’t notice the flaws. The film is engaging and informative, presented with a wry wit and an eye toward the future generations who will wonder if things really got this ludicrous.

During its last half-hour, the documentary takes on the rhythms of a suspense movie as the time left to push through a repeal ticks away. Even though I knew how it turned out, I found myself getting caught up in the tension.

The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is well worth your time. It’s an absorbing account of an important piece of LGBT history. And a stark reminder that your Congressional representatives can go all loopy if you let them off the hook for even a minute. Basic fairness and common sense can win out in the end, but you have to keep reminding them of what that is.

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