October 25, 2016
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Life After Don't Ask Don't Tell

By La Monica Everett-Haynes

University Communications

TUCSON, AZ - Aimee León, a former U.S. Navy and Air Force service member currently enlisted with the Arizona National Guard, set out six months ago to photograph retired LGBT veterans across the nation. 

Initially, the University of Arizona art major received hundreds of letters of support for the project, and 10 people committed to it. But something unexpected happened: One by one, some began to back out.

"I started investigating that, and what I was finding was that the majority of these people were still afraid of military retaliation," said León, whose work is currently on display at the UA's Union Gallery.

The exhibition, "We Specialize In Controversy," features photographs of four retired LGBT veterans – two living in Arizona; two living in Florida. 

The exhibition comes during a nationwide debate about whether the federal government should repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, which bars homosexuals from serving in the military. 

The work will remain on display through Oct. 31 at the gallery located on the third floor of the Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E. University Blvd. Also, León will give an artist's talk Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. The talk will be held in the Student Union's Kachina Gallery.

When León started the project, she intended to depict retired LGBT military personnel who successfully served. 

"I want to bring attention to the fact that we have had very successful people come out of the military who also are successful members of society," said León, who is a lesbian.

For the exhibition, she was able to photograph two women, one man and a transgendered individual, who each amassed at least 20 years of service. 

Instead of choosing one portrait, León selected one image to represent each month the four served in the military. All told, the group served in the U.S. Army, were active duty Air Force members or were with the Air National Guard. 

"When you tell someone, 'I did 20 years,' a lot of people do not really grasp what 20 years means," León said. "I really want to give the viewers an awareness, especially if they are unfamiliar with the military and the amount of time these people dedicated." 

In her work, León uses varied and symbolic visual modes in an effort to convey both the reality of these LGBT veterans within society, as well as the extent of their commitment to the armed forces despite having to conceal important aspects of their identity, said Marijana Rayl, a graduate student studying art history who also is the Union Gallery's graduate assistant.

"By addressing the long history of LGBT servicemen and women in the U.S. military, the exhibition offers a unique and personal portrayal of a controversial contemporary political issue," Rayl also noted.

In fact, the issue is of great relevance to León who, at the moment, is under investigation for violating the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. 

The Union Gallery exhibition also includes a separate collection of photographs focusing on her work-related life as a service member under investigation.

"When the examination started, I found that there were a lot of artists identifying people processed out of Don't Ask Don't Tell," she said, adding that many existing video and photographic projects tend to focus on individuals who were ousted by the military.

The fact that most backed out became "a poignant aspect" of the project, she said, adding that "We Specialize In Controversy" is just the beginning of a more long-term project.

"People really need to understand the fear of retaliation is ongoing; it's doesn't go away when you retire because it has been so embedded for so many years," León said.  

"Not only did these people serve silently and in the closet, but now that they are retired, they are supposed to live the life they want," she added. "But they are still in fear. It's not just sad, but also ridiculous."


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