I could not be who I was.
—Admiral Alan M. Steinman, Ask Not
I believe that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is wrong, and what we really need to be encouraging soldiers to do is to don’t lie, don’t hide, don’t discriminate, and don’t weaken the military. That’s what we need to be promoting.
—Lt. Daniel Choi, The Rachel Maddow Show (7 May 2009)
“It’s not good for your soul, to hide,” says Ben Cartwright. “It’s like you’re killing a part of yourself.” He knows something about hiding. He’s not a criminal and he’s not afraid of anything. He is, however, the same-sex partner of someone in the U.S. military. In order to protect his partner’s career, he makes sure that none of his belongings or images of him are visible in the house where they both live, so none of the partner’s associates will see who he is. “And then I, of course, disappear,” he adds. “I’m not here.”
For all his efforts to support his partner, Cartwright has drawn some bright lines. For one thing, he is only interview subject in Silent Partners who names himself, or shows his face, for that matter. He’s already been visible in Ask Not, and he’s not averse to speaking to other media outlets. “I’m a big gay activist,” he self-defines, or at least, “I never thought that I’d be the kind of person who would go back in the closet.” Outspoken and observant, he notes here, “Sometimes I feel like I’m going against the things I fight for.”
So you can understand his openness in Silent Partners, the fourth episode in this season’s In Their Boots, the remarkable documentary series available online and on selected TV networks. Looking at the effects of serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on those at home, the series features both returning veterans and family members, individuals and communities whose sacrifices aren’t always recognized or recompensed. Last year’s 12 films touched on a range of difficult issues in fresh, provocative, and rewarding ways, from rape in the U.S. military (the deeply effective Angie’s Story), veterans’ suicides, PTSD, ineffectual post-service treatment, and DIY widows’ organizations, to finding work after the military, surviving brain trauma, and sending care packages to soldiers who may or may not be relatives.
Silent Partners is also premiering on 16 July in Los Angeles, presented by Lt. Daniel Choi, the West Point graduate, Arabic language expert, and National Guardsman who was discharged in April after coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show. (The screening is part of In Their Boots On the Road, a 10-month tour of 10 cities designed to “raise awareness of, and support solutions to the problems that continue to deny veterans and their families the quality care they have earned.”)
This documentary’s focus on two other partners of military members along with Cartwright takes a somewhat poetic form, in the sense that images are allusive rather than explicit. The “Gay Soldier’s Husband” of Chapter One describes his frustrations supporting his partner away in Iraq, his inability to share his concerns with a neighbor whose son is also serving. His segment is illustrated with blurry, beautifully lit shots of farmland, dogs, and trees rustling in the wind, images that suggest the ambiguity of his relationship. “The phone conversations we have are perhaps the most heavily censored,” the Gay Husband sighs. “I have to be careful about little terms of endearment that might slip out in normal conversation when we’re together or simply telling him that I love him. It’s all off limits.
The Husband goes on to recalls that when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was conceived in the ‘90s, he and his partner thought briefly it might have been “a good idea.” Now, he sighs, it’s plainly a catastrophe—for those deployed and those back home. “The reason it’s been such a failure,” he says, “Is they were completely unable to imagine how it would impact gay and lesbian families, because I don’t think that the concept of gay and lesbian families even occurred to them.” As mad and sad as he is, however, the Gay Husband is determined not to give in: “The answer, I think, is to face the pain as honestly as you are able, wail at it shake your fist at it howl sob and then walk on… Do not dwell, for the ground there is a soppy muck that will suck you in if you stay to wallow.”
Similarly, a woman describes her feelings of isolation and loss when her partner is deployed. Also a military officer, the speaker spells out a specific problem for gay partners: “It’s a case where no news for a straight family, is good news. For me, being outside the formal chain of communication, no news doesn’t mean anything. Because they’re not going to contact me anyway. She has to be the one that contacts.” And so when she knows her partner is on a mission, she waits anxiously to hear from her—the camera watches her sitting by a laptop and framed photo—both the women’s faces blurred.
Both had lived for years retired from the military, then reenlisted following 9/11. The interviewee notes with pride that she’s a good leader, and has recently earned her jump wings, now certified to jump out of planes. The irony of her coming deployment as a troop leader, she says, “Is that if they find out I’m gay, I will automatically be discharged for destroying unit morale.”
Silent Partners tells complicated stories with simple-seeming and admirably low-budget strokes, making visual what can’t be shown, revealing what’s hidden, even while granting its subjects the choice to show their faces. The fact that these don’t feel like choices is to the film’s point. Like the other documentaries of In Their Boots, it offers subjects a chance to share their experiences. It also offers elegant solutions to an enduring representational puzzle, challenging the “invisibility” that Ben Cartwright and other not-so-silent partners resist.