Johnny Symons, director of the films Ask Not (Independent Lens, 2009) and Daddy & Papa (Independent Lens, 2002), was invited to attend the ceremony for President Obama’s signing of the repeal of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which forced gay military personnel to serve in secrecy or be discharged. Emotional as he left the ceremony, he sent us this dispatch from Dulles Airport.
It’s 7am. Hundreds of bleary eyed people, most of them LGBT, are standing in a long line that wraps around the outside of the Department of the Interior. It’s 30 degrees out. After a half hour of shivering, the line begins to move. IDs are checked, we clear security, and find ourselves inside an official-looking auditorium.
People greet and hug and pose at the base of the podium, which is graced by the flags of each branch of the military. Anticipation and jubilation are in the air. The room is filled with people who have been fighting for this day for decades: activists, veterans, politicians, lobbyists. I’m thrilled to discover that many of the subjects from Ask Not are there: Alex Nicholson, founder of the Call to Duty Tour profiled in the film, and currently executive director of Servicemembers United; Jacob Reitan of the Right to Serve campaign; Palm Center director and leading Don’t Ask Don’t Tell expert Aaron Belkin; and Rear Admiral Al Steinman, the most senior-ranking military officer to come out of the closet so far.
Eventually congressmembers come in: Senators Reid, Franken, Leahy, Gillibrand, and Collins, and Speaker Pelosi, among others. I catch Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk) introduce himself to Attorney General Eric Holder. Soon we take our seats and the program begins.
A rabbi leads the invocation, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance … and then, in the midst of singing the national anthem, I start to choke up. There is something truly amazing about this moment, standing here surrounded by gays and lesbians who are about to be given rights they have been denied for years …
An assortment of key congressional figures and discharged veterans take the stage, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen. Joe Biden approaches the mic, says a few words and then introduces the star of the show: Barack Obama. I happen to be sitting near a group of Log Cabin Republicans, but there is no shortage of applause: it’s thundering.
Obama begins with a moving story of a WWII soldier who was wounded in a firefight and whose life was saved by a comrade. Years later he discovered the comrade was gay. Of course, it didn’t matter. Obama reminds us that DADT has been in effect for 17 years, but this is a battle we’ve been fighting for over 200 years. Echoing the final lines from Ask Not, he speaks of the added burden of silence gay soldiers have made while serving their country — and that it’s time to make things right.
After thanking everyone on stage and many others for their contributions to getting us here, he encourages those gay servicemembers who were discharged to reenlist — and for other gay Americans to sign up. He promises a swift and efficient implementation of the new policy. And then he sits, picks up a pen, and signs the bill. He declares simply, triumphantly, conclusively, “This is done.”
People stand, cheer, cry. A long line forms at the front of the stage with people eager to meet Obama. I do my best to make it to the front, but I’m too far back. Later I run into Jacob Reitan, who tells me Obama shook his hand and told him, “This is one of the days when it’s good to be president.”