Germantown art exhibit examines pre-repeal DADT’s effects on members of the military

In the latest exhibition at Germantown’s iMPerFeCT Gallery, career documentary photographer Vincent Cianni explores how many members of the U.S. military have been “under fire” not just in battle, but from their own country’s ban on gay service-members.

Cianni’s subjects — revealed through both black-and-white portraits and written first-person stories adapted from audio interviews — were “under fire institutionally, socially, religiously and legally,” a introduction to the show explains.

A Penn State graduate who lives in Newburgh, NY, Cianni has exhibited his work in museums throughout the country.

This is the second tour of exhibition for “Gays in the Military: How America Thanked Me,” which premiered in New York in Nov. 2011. A book of the images and stories will be published in 2014 under the same title.

Gallery co-owner Renny Molenaar said he was pleased to mount the show as a new way to reach out to Philadelphia’s gay community.

The artist explains

Both veterans of the New York City art world, Molenaar and Cianni were once neighbors.

“His backyard and my backyard touched,” Molenaar said, describing how he and Cianni first met in New York.

Speaking with NewsWorks at the exhibit’s Saturday night opening, Cianni said the larger theme is a “history of homophobia” and an exploration of just how far-reaching the effects of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy was before it was repealed in 2011.

After hearing a radio interview in 2009 with the mother of a man Cianni would eventually photograph for the project, the documentarian became determined to help the cause of repealing DADT.

“The only way I could do that was going out and doing what I do best,” he said, meaning taking photos and collecting stories. “I don’t try to impose my individual bias.”

With the ban on serving openly still in effect, tracking down men and women willing to share their stories was quite a task. However, through military academy alumni associations, social media, DADT-repeal activists and his own political involvement, Cianni gathered more than 70 participants.

He spent six weeks on the road in 2010, conducting interviews and taking photographs.

In the shadows

The composition of some photos now on display at iMPerFeCT were influenced by the fact that DADT had yet to be repealed when the images were made.

One active-duty officer appears with his back to the camera and, in another, a Marine’s face is cloaked in shadow.

Cianni said he took a personal approach to the pictures, interviewing his subjects beforehand for up to four hours, taking in their early life, their religious beliefs, family and school experiences, military service and how the world’s view of their sexuality affected them.

As a result, these men and women “felt very comfortable with me” when it came time to hit the shutter, Cianni explained.

Those in-depth interviews helped him to compose settings for the photographs that speak volumes about their subjects. Their surroundings reveal favorite sports teams, ethnic and religious clues, hobbies, medicines, tattoos, gardens and pets.

What it looks like

The images feature veterans and active-duty officers from WWII through the present; there are men and women of all races.

Gallery visitors are greeted by a large bank of black-and-white images, and as the exhibit progresses, single prints are accompanied by page-long excerpts of the subjects’ oral histories.

Harrowing stories include soldiers who faced censure and dishonorable discharge after unauthorized searches of their private e-mails.

Others were outed by members of their own units, and many described prolonged psychological and physical abuse at the hands of their superiors.

A U.S. Navy petty officer and K-9 handler claimed to have been hosed down, tied to a chair, locked in dirty dog kennels and forced to eat dog food when his colleagues suspected the truth about his sexuality.

In the narrative which accompanies the portrait of former U.S. Army Lt. Col. John O’Brien, a veteran of three Iraq tours and closeted gay man, he explains he responsible for investigating and discharging many gay soldiers.

“You know what breaks up unit cohesion?” O’Brien asks. “You know what disrupts up morale? It’s a witch hunt.”

Activist art

Since launching the project, Cianni has also lent images and stories to organizations advocating the repeal of DADT.

“What has changed in people’s mind is the scope of the issue,” he said of viewers’ responses to the project.

Cianni noted that even those who support gays serving openly in the military are often not aware of the extent of the human-rights violations under the ban.

His images and interviews strive to show that forcing service members to hide their true selves was far from a professional inconvenience; it affected every part of their lives.

“Gays in the Military: How American Thanked Me” will be on display at iMPerFeCT Gallery through March 2. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 12-5 p.m.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal