Ask Not is a rare and compelling exploration of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The film exposes the tangled political battles that led to the discriminatory law, reveals personal stories of gay Americans serving in combat in the Middle East under a veil of secrecy, and profiles courageous activists as they play critical roles leading to the policy’s repeal.
Using a primarily observational approach, Ask Not follows the stories of three different activists to underscore the impact of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy prohibiting U.S. military service for openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
The principal characters include discharged veterans who embark on a cross-country “speak-out” tour of conservative college campuses, openly LGBT activists who use civil rights-era strategies to stage sit-ins at recruitment centers, and a gay soldier who goes back into the closet to serve on the front lines in Iraq. Each story focuses on LGBT characters who fight and sacrifice for what they believe in, embodying justice and democratic values. The film interweaves the political history behind Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and powerful statistics that illustrate the fallacy and negative impact of the policy. All of the principal subjects are under age 35—as are most people serving in the military—illustrating the critical role that young people can play in bringing about policy change.
With its strong stance on military policy, Ask Not could have been a Trowel: It could have sent a piercing signal throughout the grassroots movement, urging viewers to call their lawmakers, the Pentagon, and more. Instead, by crafting portraits of those on the front lines of the issue, director Johnny Symons took a Trellis approach. He reveals the process by which individuals joined the movement and interviews family members as they ponder the consequences of their friends’, sons’, and partners’ decisions. By elevating these complex experiences, as a Trellis lifts up new vines, he invites broader audiences to see the light.
Demonstrate to viewers the injustice and irrationality of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in order to bring about its repeal.
Engagement strategies focused on two primary audiences: mainstream Americans—particularly voters with middle-of-the-road political viewpoints—and young people. Ask Not was programmed nationally on PBS’Independent Lens and selected as one of ten ITVS Community Cinema projects, which include community screenings and forums nationwide. The Palm Center, a think-tank focused on military issues, provided an outreach grant to present screenings that targeted veterans, youth, and American voters, and to partner with local advocacy groups to increase visibility and attendance of the screenings. PBS created a discussion guide and an online video game designed to trigger additional debate around issues brought up in the film. Interactive tie-ins were created so that viewers could follow the ongoing activist efforts of the film’s subjects via social media.
During Congressional debate of the policy, Ask Not was screened at the U.S. Capitol for members of Congress, many of whom spoke afterwards during the Q&A. When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was eventually repealed, the White House invited Symons to attend President Obama’s ceremony signing the repeal into law. The symbolism of a media maker witnessing an official policy change suggests that “grasstops influentials” recognize the unique contributions of media makers, in general, and, in this case, a Trellis-builder in particular.
At the grassroots level, more than half a million people watched Ask Not on PBS. The Community Cinema program organized more than 50 screenings in cities around the country, bringing together the filmmaker, subjects, community organizers, and current and veteran service members to discuss the merits of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The film screened on hundreds of college campuses, often accompanied by subjects featured in the film, and sparked additional youth activist efforts.
“Ask Not provides vivid historical context to explain the political origins of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, along with compelling accounts of the resistance movements that have challenged this policy in the past few years. By documenting the educational efforts launched by gay veterans, the sit-ins at military recruitment centers, and the story of a gay soldier on duty in Iraq, the film gives multiple perspectives on the personal impact of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, making a strong case for its repeal.”
— Estelle Freedman, Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History, Stanford University