An Intimate Look at the Lives of Gay Service Members

ZACHARY WERTH, BOISE, ID, 2011SPECIALIST, IDAHO ARMY NATIONAL GUARD, 2007-2010Medic. General discharge under honorable conditions, erroneousenlistment; used as a smokescreen for homosexualityANDDUSTIN HIERSEKORN, BOISE, ID, 2011PRIVATE, U.S. MARINE CORPS RESERVE, 2010Discharged for medical reasons two weeks after enlisting
Zachary Werth (right) and Dustin Hiersekorn, Boise, Idaho, 2011. Werth, a specialist-ranked medic in the Idaho Army National Guard from 2007-2010, received a general discharge under honorable conditions for erroneous enlistment, which was used as a smokescreen for homosexuality. Hiersekorn, a private in the Marine Corps Reserve in 2010, was discharged for medical reasons two weeks after enlisting.

Vincent Cianni

In 2009, while listening to a radio interview, photographer Vincent Cianni was moved by the story of a mother whose son was in the Army and had been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Although he wasn’t certain how he would create a series around the story, Cianni said the mother’s sense of love and pride prompted him to call her about contacting her son.

That initial call sparked a four-year project that took Cianni around the country interviewing and taking portraits of gay service members. His initial uncertainty about how he would develop the project eventually became a book, Gays in the Military, published by Daylight. Cianni began working on it while DADT was still policy, but the movement to repeal it was at its height, and he continued the project after the policy was lifted in 2011.

As is the case of Cianni’s other projects, Gays in the Military appealed to him from a personal place. Cianni was drawn to the project not only because he is gay, but because he feels a connection to social justice issues and projects that deal with memory and community. He was also inspired by Nathaniel Frank’s 2009 book Unfriendly Fire that examined the devastation caused by DADT and the dishonest and disingenuous research that went into creating the policy that discriminated against gays and lesbians. “The whole intention of this project was to give voice to people who were not able to have a voice, were not able to tap into their history,” Cianni said.

DEBRA FOWLER, LOWELL, MA, 2013SPECIALIST, U.S. ARMY, 1986-1988Korean Linguist. Defense Language Institute Soldier’s Award;dishonorable discharge, fraudulent entry; outed when beinginvestigated for top-secret security clearance
Debra Fowler, Lowell, Massachusetts, 2013. Fowler, a specialist in the Army from 1986-1988, was a Korean linguist and received the Defense Language Institute Soldier’s Award. She was outed when being investigated for top-security security clearance and received a dishonorable discharge for fraudulent entry.

Vincent Cianni

Left: Paul Goercke, San Francisco, 2012. Goercke, a messman/staff officer in the U.S. Merchant Marines from 1944–1945, is also a World War II veteran who served in Okinawa, Ie-Shima Island, Hawaii, and Saipan. Right: Katie Miller, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011. Miller was enrolled at the West Point from 2008–2010 and resigned commission on moral grounds.

Vincent Cianni

Cianni said that finding people to participate in the project in its early stages was tricky, since most service members were forced to live in secrecy. He relied on word of mouth and social media channels, and he also spent a lot of time researching websites and LGBT organizations and other resources that acted as support groups for gay-identified troops. Eventually people began to recognize him and knew his intentions for the project were good.

That networking established a sense of trust in Cianni, and he deepened the bond with the individuals he met and photographed while talking to them. Cianni said he always interviewed the people before taking their portraits, which allowed them to get to know each other better; it also made Cianni feel a bit like a therapist, since many of the service members were forced into secrecy. “Since the portraits were made after the interviews were done, there was even a closer connection established through that process,” Cianni said. “I think a little sense of history was built between the two of us.”

The portraits were shot on black-and-white film because Cianni didn’t want anything in color to detract from the subjects. “I wanted to strip away everything but the viewer’s connection to the people and the people’s experience and their story, and color has its own psychological presence and determinations,” Cianni said. “I really wanted to strip away everything to just us looking at the individual.”

A typical shoot would produce between 30-60 images. Based on their conversation during the interview process, the rooms in their homes, and the light, Cianni would then pick a few environments in which to conduct the portrait sessions. Of the roughly 100 service members he interviewed, the book was edited down to include about half of those people. “The decisions were primarily based on trying to build a range of stories and experiences and generations that spanned rank, race, geographic area, background, religion, and family makeup,” Cianni said. “I wanted to bring out a real life range of stories.”

VICTOR FEHRENBACH, BOISE, ID, 2011 LIEUTENANT COLONEL, U.S. AIR FORCE, 1991-2011Retired F-15E Fighter Pilot. Tours of duty in Iraq (including Operation Iraqi Freedom), Kuwait, and Afghanistan; 88 combat missions, 400 combat hours; successfully fought DADT after coming out on Rachel Maddow Show in 2009
Victor Fehrenbach, Boise, Idaho, 2011. A lieutenant colonel in the Air Force from 1991–2011 and a retired F-15E fighter pilot, Fehrenbach served tours of duty in Iraq (including Operation Iraqi Freedom), Kuwait, and Afghanistan, including 88 combat missions and 400 combat hours. He successfully fought his discharge under “don’t ask, don’t tell” after coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009.

Vincent Cianni

AIRMAN FIRST CLASS E-3, U.S. AIR FORCE, 1998-2000Intelligence Specialist. Honorable discharge; put under arrest after being singled out by coworker; discharged within five days with no investigation
Matt McCary (right) and David Cochenic, Orange Park, Florida, 2011. McCary, an airman first class in the Air Force from 1998–2000 was an intelligence specialist. He was placed under arrest after being singled out by a co-worker and was honorably discharged within five days with no investigation. Cochenic, a chief petty officer in the Navy since 1992, has served as a field medical service technician and aerospace medical technician.

Vincent Cianni

VONDA TODD, AUSTIN, TX, 2012SECOND LIEUTENANT, SOUTH CAROLINA NATIONALGUARD, 1983-1988MAJOR, U.S. ARMY RESERVE, 1998-2012Quartermaster, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. RetiredANDMARY HARRIS, AUSTIN, TX, 2012MAJOR, U.S. ARMY, 1982-1987, AND U.S. ARMY RESERVE, 1988-2002Adjutant Generals Corps, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. RetiredBoth came under scrutiny and underwent questioning in aninvestigation based on their health insurance beneficiary formsand shared home address
Vonda Todd (left) and Mary Harris, Austin, 2012. Todd served as a second lieutenant in the South Carolina National Guard from 1983–1988, as a major in the Army Reserve from 1998–2012, and as a quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She is retired. Harris served as a major in the Army from 1982–1987, Army Reserve from 1988–2002, and adjutant general corps at Fort Sam Houston. She is retired. Both women came under scrutiny and underwent questioning in an investigation based on their health insurance beneficiary forms and shared home address.

Vincent Cianni