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Fight for Queer Equality in the Military Chronicled in New MSNBC Documentary

MSNBC Documentary Serving in Secret
Images: Shutterstock; YouTube @MSNBC

Through the eyes of a veteran and activists, Serving in Secret depicts discrimination, love, heartache, and redemption on the road to repealing anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

In the new MSNBC documentary Serving in Secret: Love, Country, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell, retired U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Thomas T. Carpenter likens being gay in the military in the 1970s to living under the sword of Damocles.

Before discriminatory military policies were repealed, queer service members were singled out, found out, and forced out. Some were assaulted or killed. If a soldier was charged with being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the military launched a criminal Investigation, and if a soldier was dishonorably discharged as a result, it had severe professional as well as personal ramifications. This happened both under "don't ask, don't tell," which went into effect in 1994, and the outright ban on LGB troops that preceded it. (Transgender people were barred from the military under a separate policy.)

Carpenter’s life, in and out of the military, is woven throughout the film, including his time during the dark and harrowing days when being gay required the utmost secrecy. It was during this period that Carpenter met his lover, Naval Flight Officer Courtland Hirschi. Both eventually left the military — under different circumstances — and went on to earn law degrees. Then Hirschi died of AIDS complications, while Carpenter went on to a life of activism, including working to repeal DADT, a compromise policy that was supposed to make life better for LGB service members but didn't.

From the perspective of Carpenter and others, the documentary examines blatant discrimination toward LGBTQ+ service members. It also traces the politics of the issue of queers in the military and the decades-long struggle for equality, including the implications in the rush to recruit soldiers during World War II; the story of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who appeared on an iconic cover of Time in 1975; and the murder of Army Pvt. Barry Winchell, who was beaten to death because he was gay.

It wasn’t until 2010, when Congress passed the repeal of DADT and President Barack Obama signed it into law, that equality for LGB troops was realized. (Later, the trans ban would be lifted, then reinstated, then lifted again.)

The film features interviews with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who were both instrumental in ending DADT. Other interviewees include current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, and longtime gay rights activist David Mixner.

Two others featured in the film are retired Army Col. Stewart Bornhoft and retired Navy Capt. April Heinze. While on active duty, Bornhoft was featured in a centerfold with several other LGBTQ+ military officers in a 2007 issue of The Advocate. Heinze read that issue, which inspired her to come out and get involved in the equality movement.

Bornhoft and Heinze ended up working together on the repeal effort with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, along with Carpenter, who emphasizes at the end of the film that while equality was realized, the struggle isn’t finished. “Always be prepared to fight,” Carpenter warns. “Because it’s never over.”

Serving in Secretairs November 12 at 10 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC and will stream on Peacock. The film is an episode of The Turning Point, a documentary series from MSNBC Films and executive producer Trevor Noah that tackles the big issues of the era — from voting rights to civil rights, human rights to climate change to the fight for American democracy.

Serving in Secret: Love, Country, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell | Official

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