Coming Out Under Fire

1994     16mm     Theatrical Version: 71 minutes     Broadcast Versions: 57 or 59 minutes     B/W     US     English

In 1993, the controversy over the US military’s ban on homosexuals touched off a furious and polarizing national exchange. Yet, for many Americans this issue seemed to come out of nowhere. Coming Out Under Fire, an hour-long documentary from Arthur Dong, goes to the World War II origins of today’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise. Based on Alan Bérubé’s groundbreaking book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, this program presents the true stories of those who found themselves fighting two battles: one for their country and another for their right to serve.

While current-day media coverage has shown Senators visiting barracks and submarine sleeping quarters, there has been little acknowledgment of the history and origins of this 50-year-old policy. “The media deals with emotions and hysteria, the sensationalism of the issue,” says Coming Out Under Fire producer/director Arthur Dong. “What we’re trying to do is bring that history out.”

Dong uncovers the history of a military policy that labeled homosexuals as mentally ill and sought their discharge as “undesirables.” The first-person stories of nine World War II gay and lesbian veterans recount how many joined the patriotic fight against fascism only to find themselves at war with their own government.

Coming Out Under Fire is a rare personal look at war, secrecy, and the pain of exposure. Powerful interviews are combined with an array of vintage declassified documents, photographs, and rare archival footage of medical examinations, psychiatric sessions, boot camp training, sex education lectures, and “drag” troop entertainment. By placing the issue in a historical and social context, Dong goes right to the heart of the military’s anti-homosexual policy and demonstrates how “pseudo psychiatry” was used to justify a policy of bigotry.

Co-written by author Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire features gay and lesbian veterans who candidly share their memories of daily military life. They recall their willingness to serve their country in the face of oppressive and humiliating treatment that included dehumanizing interrogations, medical examinations, and incarceration in “queer stockades” and hospitals for the criminally insane. Finally, those discovered were punished with dishonorable discharges that stigmatized them in civilian life and denied them veteran benefits regardless of length or quality of duty served.

Arthur Dong

Alan Bérubé

Veronica Selver

Mark Adler

Director of Photography
Stephen Lighthill

Salome Jens

George Foster Peabody Award

Special Jury Award
Sundance Film Festival

Teddy Award
Berlin International Film Festival

Best Documentary
GLAAD Media Award

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