My first magazine cover!

Yesterday, was “Repeal Day”, after 18 years of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and 58 total years of ban on gays and lesbians in military (1953 – 2011) it was the first day a United States service member could come out of the closet with out fear of being discharged for identifying as a homosexual. To celebrate the day OutServe (the organization of Actively Serving LGBT military personnel) released their  historic “Repeal” issue.

The magazine featured images from Proud to Serve   and 101 Faces of Courage, photos of active duty military personnel.  My portrait of Captain Anthony “Tony” Woods was on the cover!

You can order your copy here: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/272961

Curious, when, how and why I started Proud to Serve, here is the article I wrote to accompany my images in the magazine:

Proud to Serve: is a portrait essay and multimedia piece featuring Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) American service members who served their country in silence or were discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. Over the last two years, I visited the homes and documented the stories of these men and women.

I started Proud to Serve, when I was a student at the International Center of Photography (www.icp.org) in Manhattan (2008-2009). I have never been in the military; I don’t come from a military family. I am a lesbian. Before starting this project, I never really thought about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or gays in the military.

In the summer of 2008, I was a pedicab driver in Austin, Texas. Austin’s proximity to Ft. Hood meant that, every weekend, tons of returning Iraq veterans would come to Austin’s 6th Street district to hang out. This was the first time I was actually around service members my own age. One weekend night, I gave a ride to a young soldier who opened my eyes.  During the ride to his hotel, he started telling me about his military life, the recent death of his friends, how he didn’t want to re-enlist but the military had offered him money to stay in. By this point I had pulled over the cab and we were just talking. I had a sense he needed an ear. After further chatting, he told me he was gay and what it was like to be gay in the Army. How he had to lie on a daily basis. I was like most Americans who were not in the military; I didn’t think, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was “wrong”. I assumed people didn’t ask, and you didn’t tell. That night, I went home and looked up gays in the military. The numbers shocked me.

There are roughly 70,000 gay men and women currently serving in the armed forces. Nearly 14,000 service members have been discharged for being gay.  There are more than one million gay veterans.

Two months later I was a full-time student at the ICP, where, from day one, you are instructed to find and focus on a long-term photography project. Unlike a lot of my peers, who were searching for ideas and projects, I knew right away what/who I wanted to document. I wanted to photograph and record the stories of LGBT veterans. Our long-term projects had to be approved by our seminar instructors and when I brought it to mine, I was told,  “Why do you want to photograph gay veterans? This is not a project, gays have always been in the military.” That was my point exactly, gays have always been in the military, but who are they, what are their stories? I wanted to put a human face on the statistics. After much debate, I was granted the go ahead on my project.

Now the fun part, how do you find LGBT veterans? I started posting on Craigslist and began contacting all the organizations I could find, HRC (Human Rights Campaign, SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network), SU (Servicemembers United) and AVERNY (American Veterans for Equal Rights) NY Chapter. At first I received little response, but I was persistent. After months of making little progress and increased pressure from my instructors, in March of 2009 I headed to Washington DC for SLDN’s “Lift the Ban” rally. It was there that I met the first three participants, Captain Joan Darrah, Sargeant Darren Manzella and ROTC Midshipmen Todd Belok. We exchanged info and two weeks later I was again on a bus headed to D.C., where Captain Darrah would pick me up and take me to her home in Arlington, VA. I was really nervous because I had never photographed someone I didn’t know in his or her home. She and her partner Lynne were amazing. I couldn’t have wished for a better first subject. After about an hour of photographing, we sat down and I recorded her story. At this point I had done months of research, read countless books and stories on the subject of gays in the military and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but it wasn’t until she spoke, that the real impact of the ban hit me. “I was at the Pentagon bus top when the planes hit on September 11th, seven of my co-workers were killed, if I had been killed, my partner would have been the last to know…” If I had any doubts about this project, her words instantly dissolved them.

I finished school that summer, but I knew that I wasn’t finished with this project, that this was just the beginning. The first major publicity for the project occurred when The Advocate Magazine published six portraits in the November 2009 issue. Veterans from all over the country started contacting me and I kept all their information in hopes to someday visit with them.

That winter I discovered and reached out to Knights Out and Sue Fulton. Sue invited me to her home, sent out emails and put me in touch with the next five veterans I would photograph. In January of 2010, The LGBT Community Center in New York approached me. They were interested in exhibiting Proud to Serve with an opening on Veteran’s Day, November 2010 and they wanted 30 images to display. At this point I had been working on the project for more than a year and a half and had documented only 15 veterans.

My main problem in expanding the project and reaching more people was that I was living in Brooklyn, with no funds to travel and student loan payments looming. The other issue I was having was that I wanted the project to include veterans from across the country not just the northeast. In May of 2010 I was invited by Alex Nicholson of Servicemembers United to attend a Veteran’s Lobby Day in D.C. Face-to-face with 400 veterans from across the United States, I introduced my project and myself. The response was “Yes, come visit me in North Carolina, sure love to see you in New Mexico, if you are ever in Santa Cruz…”

That spring I racked my brain on how I was not only going to visit with all the veterans I met, but also how would I do it before November. I had heard of kickstarter.com, a funding platform for creative projects and in June I decided I would give it a try. I set up a Proud to Serve Facebook page and started tweeting and was blown away by the response. I raised more than $3,000 from 68 backers, including two active duty service members, both serving in Iraq.

On August 25, 2010 I hit the road. For the next 28 days, I traveled 10,168 miles and photographed and recorded the stories of 46 LGBT veterans. During those 28 days, I heard stories of lies, hiding, betrayal, honor and pride, a community in voices. I returned to Brooklyn on September 21 and the next three weeks were spent editing and printing 65 18-inch x 24-inch prints for the exhibit.

On November 11, 2010 Proud to Serve opened at the LGBT Center in Manhattan. That evening also included a panel discussion on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, author of the definitive work on the policy (Unfriendly Fire) Nathaniel Frank, and Center for American Progress Senior VP for External Affairs Winnie Stachelberg. The panel was moderated by attorney and political strategist Richard Socarides, who served as White House Special Assistant under President Clinton.

I walked around The Center that night and saw the faces of all the brave men and women who I had the honor to photograph, heard everyone talking about how they were so moved by the stories. It was worth the time, energy, sweat and tears that went into this project to see the public reception that night.

On December 18 the Senate voted 65 to 31 to pass the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” On March 23, 2011 I received a signed thank you note from President Obama. Proud to Serve has been published in several newspapers and magazines in the United States, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. The photos exhibited this past June at The Q Center in Portland, OR and 20 portraits are going to be in November 2011 in a group show with Catherine Opie and Sophia Wallace at the Clifford Gallery at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. I have accomplished what I wanted this project to do, to put a human face on the statistics of gays in the military, to share the stories of LGBT American Servicemembers who served our country with honor and pride even though they had to lie and hide a part of themselves to do so. Though, I am no longer actively documenting this project, I am continuing to photograph and record the stories of LGBT veterans. My latest project includes documenting people in Central Texas who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

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About Jo Ann Santangelo

Austin based freelance multimedia documentary photographer and storyteller.
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