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'Silent partner' examines what happens when people 'don't tell'

Lt. Dan Choi introduces a new documentary film about three gay partners of military personnel.

July 18, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

Ben Cartwright has been a passionate advocate for gay rights for 12 years. He is a regular at gay pride marches, has a pod-cast and writes for a gay newspaper in San Diego.

The last thing he expected was to have to put a part of himself back into the closet. But if the military were to find out about his love for a sailor, a man with years of honorable service would face a dishonorable discharge.

One of the rarely discussed effects of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule is the burden it places on the civilian partners of gay and lesbian service members. When their loved ones go to war, they do not have access to any of the counseling, financial assistance or support networks offered to heterosexual spouses. And if their loved ones die, no one will come knocking at their doors to notify them.

On Thursday, gay veterans and their partners shared their experiences at the local premiere of "Silent Partners," a 30-minute documentary offering a glimpse into the lives of three gay "military spouses" waiting for their partners to come home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 3 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
'Silent Partners': An article in Saturday's Section A about the film "Silent Partners" said that a sailor with years of honorable service would face a dishonorable discharge if the military were to find out about his relationship with a civilian of the same sex. Service members can receive a dishonorable discharge if they are prosecuted for sodomy or related offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But in most cases, gay conduct is handled as a violation of the "don't ask don't tell" rule, which is an administrative process and can only result in an honorable, general under honorable conditions or other than honorable discharge.

"This film, I believe, is telling a story we haven't heard before," said Lt. Daniel Choi, who introduced the film.

Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq veteran, received a discharge notice from the Army after he announced he was gay on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC in March.

"We can really see the destructive effects of 'don't ask, don't tell' . . . when you see the pain that these spouses and partners go through," he said.

In the film, Cartwright demonstrates what he must do to ensure their home is "de-gayed" every time unit members go there to pick up his partner for deployment. Framed photographs of the couple, posters and certificates are swept into overflowing cupboards.

"And then I, of course, disappear," he says. "I'm not here."

"Silent Partners" is being launched as gay rights advocates are pressing President Obama to make good on a campaign promise to repeal the rule that bars an estimated 65,000 service members from disclosing their sexual orientation. About 13,000 men and women have been discharged from the armed forces because of their sexual orientation since "don't ask, don't tell" took effect in 1994.

Top brass has generally been cool to repealing the rule, saying it would damage unit cohesion and put national security at risk. Although a May report by UC Santa Barbara's Palm Center think tank said the president could use his executive authority to stop the military from discharging gay personnel, the administration is looking to Congress to provide a more durable fix.

"I've thought for a while that it's a horribly flawed policy that should not be in place," said Abe Forman-Greenwald, a producer for "In Their Boots," an online film series looking at the effects of the Iraq and Afghan wars in the U.S.

But he was not sure how to fit the subject into the series until Choi's revelation moved him to pick up the phone. It was Choi who later told him about the burden the policy places on the same-sex partners of deployed service members.

"The worst part of any of it is if anything were to happen to their partners when they are away, they are not notified," Forman-Greenwald said. "That tragically was echoed two weeks ago with the death of Seaman August Provost."

Provost's boyfriend learned from the media that the sailor's shot and torched body had been found in a guard shack at Camp Pendleton on June 30. The circumstances of the killing are under investigation.

In the film, a soldier with her face blurred sits at home scanning e-mail for word that her partner has returned safely from a mission. It is the only way she will know if something happened. Soon she too will be deploying to Iraq.

Only Cartwright was willing to be identified in the film, because his partner works on a large enough base that it would be hard to track him down.

He did not attend Thursday's screening. The other two partners in the film attended but were there incognito. They stood at the back of the theater, trying to blend in.

One of them ducked out at the end. The other, who was identified in the film as D, said he had been stunned to learn after Sept. 11, 2001, that his partner of nearly 20 years wanted to rejoin the Army.

"I couldn't understand how an out gay man could go back into the military," he said. "Then he explained to me that the military saved him. He had been on a legacy of poverty and abuse that very few in his family have been able to escape."

Although D is grateful to the military for making his partner into the man he loves, he has struggled to cope with the anxiety of the deployment. In the film, he describes how they must carefully censor their brief calls and messages. Any terms of endearment could arouse suspicion.

Although D knows there must be thousands like him, he has no way to reach out to them. So he pours his feelings into a blog called "A Gay Soldier's Husband."

He is counting the days until his partner returns in August.

But he won't be among the joyous throngs at the base.

"I want to be there the moment he steps off the plane, but I'm not going to be able to stop myself from hugging and kissing him," he said. "So I'll have to wait."

"Silent Partners" and other episodes of "In Their Boots" can be viewed at www.intheirboots.com.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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