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Reviews

The Arthur Dong Collection: Stories from the War on Homosexuality (2005)

Todd R. Ramlow

The documentary clearly shows that the 'war on homosexuality' is far from over.


The Arthur Dong Collection: Stories from the War on Homosexuality

Director: Arthur Dong
Cast: Arthur Dong
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Docurama
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2005-06-14
Amazon affiliate
The road to Selma did not lead to the road to sodomy.
-- Congressman Bob Dornan, 1989

Back in the '80s, former California Congressman Bob Dornan was something of an ideological firebrand for the Republican party and infamous for his tirades against lesbian and gay rights. In 1989, speaking before the House in support of the Nation's Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act (which passed, allowing private educational institutions in D.C. to deny student funds and rights to organizations "promoting any homosexual lifestyle or act"), Dorman scoffed at lgbt and liberal activist attempts to equate gay and lesbian civil rights with Black civil rights.

The diatribe in its entirety is one of the many excellent extended scenes and interviews included in the recent DVD release, The Arthur Dong Collection: Stories from the War on Homosexuality. In it, Dornan rejects a progressivist notion of historical continuity, which sees civil liberties, enfranchisement, and equality as an ever widening field, with one group's advancement leading almost inevitably to another's. These three Dong documentaries -- Coming Out Under Fire (1994), Licensed to Kill (1997), and Family Fundamentals (2002) -- demonstrate that such rhetoric has its own historical continuity, or more precisely, that homophobia and violence against lesbians and gays have been consistent over (at least) the 20th century.

Stories from the War on Homosexuality charts a timeline of intolerance that leads directly to recent national debates and panicked legislation denying the right of state-sanctioned marriage to lesbians and gay men. The impressive booklets for each film in Docurama's DVD set include contextualizing essays by Chris Bull, Washington correspondent for The Advocate, lists of national and regional lgbt support services, and suggested further readings; the DVDs feature useful extended or new interviews and added scenes. The only disappointments are the "filmmaker interviews" with Dong, mostly meta-discourse on documentary-making. The best of these is an extension of Dong's introductory voiceover for Licensed to Kill; while framing the film's investigation of violence against gays, he describes his own youthful experience as a victim of gay-bashing. Even as he is plainly invested in his subject matter, the films underline his equanimity and willingness to include opposing points of view. This is especially true in Licensed to Kill and Family Fundamentals, which consider relations between religiously fundamentalist parents and their lesbian and gay children.

Dong's first film, Coming Out Under Fire, details the U.S. military's efforts to root out homosexuals, as these were written into institutional bylaws. The film concentrates on the experiences of WWII veterans. During that time, according to Dong and historian Allan Berubé, homosexual witch hunts really got under way. Originally released in 1994, at the height of the Clintonian "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" fiasco, the film still seems relevant, though you wish the experiences of at least a few lesbian and gay service members ousted under the policy were included here.

More importantly, the film is reductively one-sided. Granted, the military's position in indefensible, despite (or because of) changes over the years regarding the precise threat posed by queers. Even so, the repeated message of Coming Out Under Fire is that the military is one big institutionalized homo-hater, which doesn't give that institution much opportunity to speak for itself.

This is not the case in Family Fundamentals or Licensed to Kill, where the inclusion of anti-gay beliefs drives home Dong's assertion about the ongoing "war on homosexuality." Family Fundamentals tells the stories of three religious fundamentalist families with gay and/or lesbian children. The most compelling are Kathleen Bremner and her daughter and grandson (Susan Jester and her son David). Kathleen is the founder of San Diego's Spatula Ministries, a fundamentalist Pentecostal organization that administers "support" to parents. Kathleen and her group are strict biblical interpreters who favor religious conversion "therapy" and equate homosexuality with addiction and criminality. One member states that she doesn't believe there are homosexual people, only heterosexuals who have become confused, or tempted by sin. The rest of the group mutters their agreement.

One of the most compelling moments of Family Fundamentals comes when Susan's stepfather Paul turns his attention to Dong. Paul tries to clarify for the group the distinction between spirituality and politics. Claiming the group is doing spiritual work, he accuses Dong of recasting their mission as politics. The suggestion that their mission is apolitical is, of course, specious. In the segments featuring the Bremner and Jester families, each generation views interview segments already recorded with the others. Kathleen's grandson David Jester observes that the Spatula Ministries is directly "political," particularly in their support of and sponsorship by organizations like Exodus and Focus on the Family. As if the connections between religion and political action weren't clear enough, FF includes among its additional and extended scenes a conversation among Dong, David Jester, and his partner Guy Foti. When Dong asks Jester how he feels about the group's mantra, "Hate the sin, love the sinner," Jester replies, "I still feel hated."

Licensed to Kill shows how hatred can lead to spectacular acts of violence. When Dong asks inmates how they came to believe that violence against homosexuals is justifiable, nearly all relate coming from strong religious backgrounds that condemned homosexuality. Several reference the biblical passage from Leviticus (20:13) that states, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is an abomination. They must be put to death, their blood upon them." The chapter introducing Jeffrey Swinford, perhaps the most affectless and least remorseful of the killers, is titled for the DVD index, appropriately enough, "The Bible is Right."

Among the horrifying parade of hate-killers citing Biblical prejudice, one prisoner exhibits a more complicated sense of self. Jay Johnson, raised like several of the others in fundamentalist Christian surroundings, is gay himself, and was when he killed several other gay men in public cruising areas in Minneapolis in the early '90s. Johnson struggles to explain his killings in respect to his own sexuality, and despite some moments of obvious psychic disassociation, he is acutely aware of the contradictions of his own life and of a religious tradition that sends such mixed messages about tolerance and vengeance. The complications of Johnson's experience seem exacerbated by a follow-up interview included as a DVD extra. Watching the film, he sees his account of his crimes and places himself in relation to other subjects of Dong's film.

The trajectory of violence from Family Fundamentals to Licensed to Kill couldn't be clearer. In Licensed, Brett Matthews considers his current estrangement from his strict Mormon upbringing, stating he wouldn't wish his difficulties on others, because they couldn't survive them. But the movie shows that it is lesbians and gay men who can't survive. The "war on homosexuality" is far from over. Indeed, the reelection of G. W. Bush, who rode back into Washington on the shoulders of Christian fundamentalists and extreme social conservatives, makes it look like it's started all over again.

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