‘Out of Annapolis’
Oct. 22 at 9:30 p.m.
U.S. Naval Memorial Theatre
701 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Baltimore resident Frank McNeil remembers with a chuckle some of the tricks of the trade he and his Marine Corps buddies — the few who were out to each other — used to keep handy during their years at North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune where he was stationed in the ’80s.
There was a gay bar in nearby Jacksonville, N.C., ironically dubbed Secrets. But partying there was too dangerous because military police would routinely troll the Secrets parking lot for cars with military stickers, trace the owners and confront them.
McNeil wormed his way out of getting busted a few times — enough to learn Secrets was too close to home to patronize.
“‘So, Corp. McNeil, why was your car parked at a gay bar?'” McNeil remembers the conversation unfolding. “‘Uhhh, I loaned it to a friend.’ You just learned not to go out in Jacksonville, most of us went out in Wilmington, which was like an hour away. So you could go out and have fun but your guard was up, or at least mine was.”
McNeil left the military in 1991, before “Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted. His story and 10 others are told in the new film “Out of Annapolis,” a documentary that will be screened as half of a double bill at the U.S. Naval Memorial Theatre in Washington Oct. 22. It’s one of three films being screened this month as a mini Reel Affirmations festival as the LGBT film marathon has moved its usual lineup from October to April.
Director Steve Clark Hall, a San Francisco Navy vet whose own story is shared in the film, says he was inspired to make the documentary because he was tired of seeing gays misrepresented.
“I’m just trying to put a real face on who we are,” Hall says. “Everything we see so misrepresents us, so we started with a website three-and-a-half years ago. Who are these people? You know, gays are always assumed to be these other people. Not people we know. Not who we are, but then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, gays are my good friends or my neighbors.'”
Hall, who spent 20 years in the Navy, says he was “about as out as one could be without having gay tattooed on my forehead. I didn’t raise my hand and say, ‘I’m gay, kick me out.’ I think it wasn’t much of a problem for me because I was always a team player. Always an asset.”
McNeil had an especially rough time keeping his personal and professional life in balance. In those pre-“Don’t Ask” years, he only confided in a “very select” group of friends about his sexual orientation. His late partner, Chris Duncan, was battling AIDS, a factor in McNeil’s eventual resignation.
“It brought a lot of mixed feelings because I really loved what I was doing, but you just couldn’t share completely,” he says. “You couldn’t have your partner’s picture out. You had to change your pronouns. … There was a sense of dismay that you couldn’t quite be honest with the people you were serving.”
“Out of Annapolis” started in the summer of 2008 as an undertaking of the United States Naval Academy OUT — a group of LGBT U.S. Naval Academy alumni and their supporters. Hall, a novice filmmaker, says the project, which included a study of the experiences of gay alumni, aims to educate the public about the experiences of gay service members before and during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Participants were selected to give a good cross-representation of experiences. About 300 participated in the study, 75 were interviewed and 11 were chosen for the film.
“It was tough to pare it down,” Hall says. “We had some great stories we had to turn away because it would have over-represented a certain group.”
The movie debuted in New York in June and has been making the rounds of LGBT film festivals since. Hall and five others, including McNeil, will be at the D.C. screening, its local premiere.
“It’s very powerful,” says Larry Guillemette, Reel Affirmations festival chair. “I think it will resonate a great deal given the defeat our community just experienced on the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation. I think it will hopefully galvanize people to get more involved.”
Perhaps ironically, Hall didn’t conceive the project as an anti-“Don’t Ask” manifesto. The policy is hardly mentioned in the film.
“Some of it is just chronology,” he says. “Some of the people we profiled served before the policy began. But the film interestingly doesn’t sit there and try to make an argument, but in some ways just hearing the stories makes it the greatest argument against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ because people can see what it was really like trying to live under the law. We were forced to be two different people and you just can’t be.”
PHOTO: Frank McNeil at his home in Baltimore (Blade photo by Michael Key)