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The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Before political compromise became taboo, it birthed some peculiar artifacts, few more controversial than the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy introduced during the Clinton administration governing gays in the military.

With: Margarethe Cammermeyer, Barney Frank, Joe Lieberman, Patrick Murphy, Aubrey Sarvis.

Before political compromise became taboo, it birthed some peculiar artifacts, few more controversial than the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy introduced during the Clinton administration governing gays in the military. After devoting more than a year chronicling efforts to eliminate the muddled law, producer-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are rewarded with a happy ending: Its official repeal on Sept. 20. Despite the title, though, DADT’s “strange history” really isn’t all that unusual; rather, it’s a testament to what formidable opponents ignorance and prejudice can be.

For anybody who has followed the debate, this 79-minute film’s most interesting portion probably resides in its first third, chronicling how ousting homosexuals became the official military stance during World War II. Challenges to discrimination surfaced in the 1970s, but didn’t take shape until after candidate Bill Clinton — having pledged to allow gays to serve openly — settled for a half-measure in face of opposition from the military hierarchy and an intransigent Congress.

Whatever the intentions, enforcement of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell prompted the military to discharge more than 13,000 service members and forced others into a closet where honesty threatened to torpedo careers.

The history includes moments of heartbreak — a murder that followed extended harassment of a young man afraid to speak out — and hilarity, like the Navy approving a warship for use in the Village People’s “In the Navy” video, assuming it would be a splendid recruiting tool.

The filmmakers spend considerable time interviewing gay service members (their faces obscured), advocates, legislators, and especially the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, whose last-minute efforts to kill DADT during Congress’ lame-duck session last year take on the attributes of a political thriller.

Not that “The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — like many HBO docs, an unapologetic piece of liberal advocacy — is likely to win over many converts. Fortunately, discriminatory policies toward gays appear to be living on borrowed time thanks to more permissive attitudes among younger generations, which probably explains the vehemence of opposition from self-appointed stewards of the status quo, such as Sen. John McCain.

As part of “The Strange History,” there’s a quote from Sgt. Leonard Matlovich’s tombstone that reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.”

With this latest doc, Bailey and Barbato have etched another epitaph, one that essentially says: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: 1993-2011. RIP. And good riddance.”

The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Docu; HBO, Tues. Sept. 20, 8 p.m.

Production: Produced by World of Wonder. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; producers, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Mona Card, Gabriel Rotello; directors, Bailey, Barbato; editors, Langdon F. Page, Chris Conway; music, David Benjamin Steinberg. 79 MIN.

Cast: With: Margarethe Cammermeyer, Barney Frank, Joe Lieberman, Patrick Murphy, Aubrey Sarvis.

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