There is a moment early in last week’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story when David Madson (Cody Fern) and the tragically fated Jeffrey Trail (Ryan Murphy favorite Finn Wittrock) joke about the fact Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) bizarrely proposed to the former man. “How’d you get out of it?” Jeff asks. “I told him it was illegal for us to get married,” David replies with a sad smile.
It’s gallows humor at its finest, reminding us how casually and obviously homophobic America was in the late 1990s, when ACS takes place. Underneath David’s smirk you can practically hear him say. “Yes, our entire community has been denied basic rights since the dawn of time, but at least that means I don’t have to marry Andrew.”
Yet, we all know the best comedy comes from the darkest of places. So Wednesday night’s appropriately titled “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” named for the military policy that prohibited LGBTQ+ individuals from openly serving, decided to look behind the curtain and explore the painful history hiding behind marriage jokes and eye rolls. For a series that long-promised its goal was to unpack the true ills of homophobia, “DADT” accomplishes that aim in the most visceral, unforgettable way possible.
For the kinds of people who fall into Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s target audience — the younger, more liberal, coastal and LGBTQ+-friendly among us — the idea of being an out and proud gay person seems doable, or maybe even easy. Same-sex marriage has been nationally legal for years! Barack Obama ended Don't Ask, Don't Tell! Queer Eye is back! But for naval officer Jeff, the possibility of being outed in the mid-to-late ‘90s is rife with as much anxiety as any psychological thriller.
Jeff begins feeling the heat of possibly being dragged out of the closet after he saves a younger gay Navy man from a near-deadly beating in the barracks. Jeff drags the man to safety, and they share a tender, but in no way explicit, moment on a private shower bench. A fellow sailor (Ric Maddox) notices and intimidates Jeff the next day by explaining an unknown gay serviceman was arrested by military police and cut a deal. The mystery man will out everyone on base he has ever hooked up with in exchange for avoiding dishonorable discharge. Since the guy doesn’t know names, he is going to serve up a list of identifiable tattoos.
“You have any tattoos, Jeff?” he menacingly asks.
Cut to Jeff alone in the bathroom with a box cutter, some bandages, gauze, and what appears to be antiseptic. Yes, the officer does have a tattoo and he’s willing to cut away large parts of his flesh to keep that a secret. The scene gets so real, director Daniel Minahan zooms in on Jeff carving into his own leg before relenting thanks to the unimaginable pain we can all assume the sailor is in. That is how scary the specter of homophobia was, and is — Jeff was willing to mutilate himself just to avoid it. Otherwise, he could have lost everything.
Jeff’s sense of impending doom only gets worse when he is given a copy of Dignity & Respect, the military handbook detailing how the institution deals with homosexuality. Unsurprisingly, it’s terrifying and offensive, spelling out the end of Jeff’s career if he’s ever “found out.” It’s important to remember service runs through Jeff’s veins, as almost every member of his family hails from a military branch. Plus, the young man graduated from the hallowed naval halls of Annapolis Academy. Losing the Navy isn’t merely losing a job, it’s losing an entire life, in disgrace, all because of whom he chooses to love. That’s horrific.
That is also what leads to “DADT’s” most tense scene. After flipping through Dignity & Respect, Jeff prepares to commit suicide. He puts on his pristine naval whites, fashions a noose, and attempts to hang himself. But, the feeling of dying is too terrible to abide, and Jeff stops before it’s too late. It’s clear Jeff planned to die in this manner so he could end his life as a well-respected Naval officer. That’s why he’s wearing the full uniform; by dying in it, no one can take that away from him. It makes tragic sense, since it feels as though that hard-fought status will be torn away from him at any second. All because he doesn’t want to sleep with women.
In a matter of a few minutes, we’re confronted with images of a man hacking away at himself and nearly ending his own life all because of the dark power of homophobia. And, those sobering moments are surrounded by the repeated beatings of supposedly gay men, the hateful slinging of slurs, and actual police investigations into people’s sexuality. This is what really happens when such hatred is institutionalized at the highest levels of government.
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