USNA alumni asking and telling

Retired captain focuses documentary lens on gay and lesbian academy graduates

December 21, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,

One captain in the Marine Corps had to sign the confining orders to send a lesbian to jail, but was so disturbed that the next day the officer, who was also gay, submitted his resignation papers. Another man, from the Naval Academy Class of 1958, was kicked out of the military because his name was found in the address book of a "known homosexual." Other gay men and lesbians left the service because like Steve Clark Hall, a nuclear submarine captain who retired after a 20-year Navy career, they could no longer bear the burden of harboring an enormous secret about their identity. "I was tired of being single and not being able to live life the way I wanted to," said Hall, 54, who has begun gathering these stories for Out of Annapolis, the documentary film he is making about gay and lesbian alumni of the Naval Academy.

Like many of his fellow academy graduates, Hall is devoted to the institution he says deeply shaped him morally and intellectually: He is part of the "President's Circle" of donors, which requires a minimum annual gift of $2,500 to the academy's foundation. He talks in glowing terms about his time in Annapolis, the lightweight crew team, the friendships he made and the mentors who guided him. He rarely takes off his class ring.

This clean-cut Navy booster who still has trouble putting his hands in his pockets - something Mids were not supposed to do - might not seem like an obvious candidate to undertake a project sure to thrill some and outrage others. But though he insists that making waves goes against his relatively conservative nature, he is pouring his time and a good chunk of his money into documenting what he sees as an important, and all too often invisible, part of military history.

"When I was a midshipman, there were no gay or lesbian role models," he said. "All we ever heard was when someone was kicked out."

He hopes the film will help people see that gay service members exist and have achieved great things, and that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy - which requires gays in the military to hide their sexual identities or risk expulsion - is a "folly."

"This is another way to tell our story and unveil the masks of who we are. We need to educate our fellow alumni and anyone who will pay attention," said Jeff Petrie, the founder of the gay alumni group USNA Out, who has agreed to be interviewed for the film. "When I look back at how other minorities were treated in military history and how far we've come with how those people are now part of an integrated team, I know the same will be true for us one day. And I want to take advantage of every opportunity I can to move that along."

The seeds of the film were sown last year, when Hall's story was included in an exhibit about gays in the military at a San Francisco museum.

"I was amazed at people's fascination and desire to know more about us," he said. Inspired, he began posting short biographies of USNA Out members on the group's Web site - "to show people who we are."

Months later, Hall attended the major gay film festival held annually in San Francisco, where he lives. He goes every year with friends, sometimes viewing as many as 50 films, and had often dreamed of contributing his own movie. The idea came to him "like two atoms colliding": Why not take some of the stories he had already been collecting and turn them into a documentary film?

Since July, Hall has been working full-time on the movie - tracking down subjects, conducting initial interviews, learning the craft of filmmaking and beginning to film. He has already spent $30,000 of his own money, choosing to turn down some offers of financial assistance, mostly because he doesn't want anyone to interfere with his vision.

In particular, he is determined to make a film that shows the Navy and the Naval Academy in a positive light. Though almost all the people he has spoken to in initial, off-camera interviews were forced out of the service or left because they did not want to continue under a policy they viewed as discriminatory and untenable, many - like him - are proud of their military histories and have a strong connection to their years in Annapolis.

"There are difficult times, difficult memories. But I would not change it. I would do it all over again because of the infrastructure of friends and support," said Linda Postenrieder, 48, who recently married her same-sex partner in California in a ceremony that several academy friends attended. Hall filmed the wedding.

While some alumni - particularly those who were kicked out - are bitter about what happened to them, that will not be the focus of the film, Hall said.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure the alumni look great. We're all products of the academy, and the academy does a really good job of developing people's character," he said. "I don't want to show dirty laundry."

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