Photographer Vincent Cianni began his collection “Gays in the Military” after listening to a mother speak about her son’s discharge three years ago. Cianni said he heard something in her voice that compelled him to get in contact with more people in similar situations.
Cianni came to Webster University on Feb. 27 for opening night of the collection. The exhibit was at the May Gallery in Sverdrup Hall. Cianni captured the perspective of gay and lesbian men and women while in service.
“Think about what it would be like if you couldn’t talk about yourself with your friends,” Cianni said. “I want to give a voice of people who haven’t had a voice in the military.”
The collection shows portraits of military men and women, typically in their homes or with their partners. Each subject was compelled to hide their sexuality in the military, commonly under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The models in the collection varied from veterans over the age of 90 to service members in their 20s. Cianni said the project was intended for historical recall and meant for an educational purpose to expose the situation.
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in effect for 17 years, prohibiting openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military. Homosexual soldiers were advised not to tell anyone of their sexual orientation so they could be admitted or continue their military service. The law was repealed in 2010.
Cianni’s photography collection is taken from his book “Gays in the Military.” The book was published in May 2014 and tells the stories of gay and lesbian men and women who served in silence.
Cianni said with his own experiences of revealing his sexual orientation, he was able to better understand the difficulties of being gay in the military, which furthered his motivation.
Certain featured photographs are juxtaposed with text of the character’s story. In Cianni’s original vision for the gallery, an audio recording of the character telling his or her story would be playing as the viewer examined the photograph.
Freshman film major Jessica Pierce attended the gallery opening and said the text alongside the images was compelling.
“It’s interesting to see the story about the faces,” Pierce said. “You can see the pain in their faces. … It’s hard.”
Pierce was particularly drawn to an image of a man named Mike Almy, whose story revealed an incident where police allegedly escorted him off his line of duty. This was shortly after his emails were exposed and revealed his sexual orientation.
“They treated him like he was a criminal,” Pierce said with discomfort.
Cianni’s collection took over three years to complete. He began by joining online chat rooms, contacting organizations and taking road trips around the country to establish relationships with the characters in his collection.
“It took a long time to build trust with people, especially people who were still serving in the military,” Cianni said.