Proud to Serve

Jo Ann Santangelo began “Proud to Serve” in January 2009, while studying at The International Center of Photography in Manhattan.

Jo Ann Santangelo began “Proud to Serve” in January 2009, while studying at The International Center of Photography in Manhattan. Initially, she wanted to know who were these service members, why did they join/stay or decide to leave. The military experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered service members have been documented in multi-media digital works, available on her website. Velvetpark readers might recall her first interview here, about “Walking the Block”, another series that Jo Ann has been documenting in black and white photography.

Jo Ann has expanded her photographer’s palate by employing colour, while continuing to immerse viewers in layers of narrative supporting the image. Regarding her photographic direction for this project, Jo Ann states that she “…wanted to not only put a human face on the statistics of the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy but to also remove the ‘gay’ label—break the stereotypes of what a lot of Americans think a gay person is. I wanted to show that we are all just people. That is why I decided to do simple, informal portraits in the homes of these American heroes with the hope of showing that we are all just men and women, living our lives.

Living their lives, serving their country — the veterans Jo Ann has been interviewing and documenting want nothing more than to be legally protected by that basic civil right, as many others are. With this series of portaits, Jo Ann underlines human achievement through a confident pause of awareness and an engagement of the camera: it is a gaze that doesn’t sensationalize, a pause that elaborates.

Portrait of former Army National Guard mechanic Sergeant Jen Hogg and partner Jackie Scalone. A cofounder of the Service Women’s Action Network, Sergeant Hogg trained as a 63Y track vehicle mechanic and worked as the HEMTT wrecker operator. Photograph by Jo Ann Santangelo/Redux Pictures.

Patricia Silva: Katherine Miller — who was contributing pseudonymously to Velvet Park about being a “recloseted” lesbian cadet at West Point — has officially resigned from that academy and transferred to Yale. With her identity public, we can now cheer her on by name. My impression of all veterans is that they become nameless. Female veterans are often ‘defaced’ of their experiences. Being homosexual means being invisible by law. From your interviews with LGBT veterans, what has surprised you most about the critical tension between patriotism and invisibility?

Jo Ann Santangelo: I started this project because I wanted to bring these hidden American heroes out of hiding. Who are the one million plus gay veterans, the 65,000 current LGBT active duty service members? Who are these men and women who have volunteered to serve their country, being patriots, all while hiding a major part of who they are? Some of course, have recalled that they didn’t “realize” or come to terms with their sexuality until they were in the military. At that point they either decided to stay hidden or out themselves and leave. Katie Miller stated she knew she was a lesbian but wanted nothing more than to be a cadet at West Point. Like lots of young service members, she couldn’t live a lie any longer.

Any surprises in meeting Sue Fulton, a member of West Point’s first graduating class of women?
I learned what is true today: we are a community. The women stuck by each other, they had to. Sue spoke about how it wasn’t the fact that you were a lesbian at West Point, it was being in the first class of women at West Point that was the bigger issue. Change is always hard to integrate no matter what it is. In the end, we humans adjust.

What about recent and younger veterans? Where do their experiences overlap with those who served decades prior? Are there new challenges?
Older veterans speak about how younger veterans now are more vocal. Many of them are just outing themselves and less likely to hide. Although they respect the military, they won’t hide, lie or live in fear for the purpose of remaining in the military. The new challenges are in the era of cell phones, texting, digital cameras, etc. It’s harder to hide your personal life.

The Robinsons: Allyson (left), her wife Danyelle (right) and their four children. Allyson and Danyelle Robinson are both 1994 graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and have been married for 15 years. Photograph by Jo Ann Santangelo/Redux Pictures.

As a Veteran qualified for UVA benefits, does being homosexual affect anything? In the post-service civilian experience of being a veteran does being homosexual make a difference?
Most Service members who are discharged from the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are honorably discharged. From what I’ve been told, all UVA benefits are retained, but what is really affected are spousal benefits. Because gays are not allowed to serve openly, or allowed to marry, partners cannot receive death benefits, burial allowances, or dependent’s educational benefits from the VA.

Have you met any bisexual veterans?

No, I haven’t yet. All the subjects so far have been either gay, lesbian or transgender.

Each veteran you have photographed must be so grateful to you. What are your veterans concerned about? What is the most important thing to them after leaving or being discharged?
Speaking out and having the opportunity to tell their story. Being part of the movement to Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Most of the younger veterans that I have photographed just want to be able to go back to work: the opportunity to re-enlist in the military if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed. Most discharged veterans tell me if DADT is repealed they would re-enlist because they love that way of life: the work, discipline, camaraderie, the training, travel, benefits, all the personal reasons they volunteered to become United States Government Property in the first place.

Within the military system, does hierarchy mean anything in relation to treatment of LGBT service members? Does rank mean anything? Will a new cadet be treated differently than a platoon leader?
As we have just seen from the law suit filed by SLDN and Lt. Col. Fehrenbach, a highly decorated combat aviator who is currently being discharged because he is gay, rank doesn’t matter. Yes, he may receive more support or know more about his rights than a cadet, who might just take his/her discharge without a fight.

After serving in the military, have the veterans you’ve met identified situations in which sexual preference would be a liability? I can’t comprehend that, so forgive me if it’s a foolish question.
The major reason I’ve been told as to why the military doesn’t want gays to serve openly is “it would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Almost all the veterans I have met say it’s quite the opposite: the more you know about your fellow soldiers, the more honest you are with one another, which creates a better working environment. It’s when you have to lie about who you are, what you did on the weekends, make up girlfriends or boyfriends—that distances you from the group and breaks down the unit.

Most service members, honestly don’t make an issue of it. Some came out to the unit and relationships with others in the unit improved once they were able to stand tall. Even the general public at large doesn’t have a problem with gays in the military. A CBS News/New York Times national poll done in February 2010 shows 58% of Americans favor gays serving openly, compared to 28% opposed.

Most of the veterans who shared their experiences with me say that while in the military, they did a good job, were good soldiers, airmen, sailors or marines. That once their Commanders found out about their sexuality or they outed themselves, the military had no choice but to discharge them because it is the law. They were discharged because they were gay not because they weren’t doing their job. Some recalled that their fellow service members knew and didn’t care. Of course, others recalled that it’s just like civilian society: there are bigots and homophobia and they feared for their safety, that being the reason they left the military or outed themselves. Most said that while they were in the military, whether it was a combat situation or stationed stateside, you were there to do your job and as long as you did your job in the end that was all that mattered.

Portrait of Iraq Veteran, US Army Staff Sergeant Jeff Carnes. Served in the U.S. Army as an Arabic linguist from 1997 to 2004, in the U.S. Army Reserves from 2004 to 2006, in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, in Kosovo with 1st Armored Division in 2000-2001. Photograph by Jo Ann Santangelo/Redux Pictures.

Without compromising privacy, in what variety of psychological states have you found LGBT veterans in? How are they coping with real life after serving, and dealing with any post traumatic stress?
Most have moved on to becoming successful in their careers, in attending college and graduate school. I’m sure most gays who have served in combat situations deal with the same PTDs as straight veterans, I don’t ask them about that. One of the older veterans said it took a while to come to terms with how they were treated. They feel let down by the military, by an organization that they wanted nothing more than to be a part of. They are finding healing and acceptance in this new movement. Some have recalled that the hardest part was the questioning. The interrogations about sexuality and personal relations. I can’t image what it’s like to be grilled, questioned, interrogated about nothing more than who you are. A majority of the veterans I have met expressed to me how much they value what the military stands for, it was their career, their life. But now they are living new lives after the military.

You’ve developed quite a successful crowdfunding drive for this project. With less than a week to go, your goal was met. Were you surprised by the volume of donations?
Yes, I was extremely surprised at first but then, when I actually thought about it and stepped away from the fund drive, looking at it as an individual, it made sense. Most of the donations came from members of the gay community. We support one another! I was touched by all the donations from current and former service members. I am so grateful for all the support I have received not only monetarily but from all the blog posts, emails and tweets that others have created to help spread the word of my project.

“Proud to Serve” will be exhibited at the LGBT Center in Manhattan, opening on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2010. In the meantime, stay tuned to Jo Ann’s video clips of daily travels, photographs and updates on Facebook and Twitter. Visit her website for more information about her current projects and upcoming shows.