Here's what "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" actually meant in the '90s, during Andrew Cunanan's murder spree
Just like the The People vs O.J. Simpson was as much about racism and sexism as it was about O.J.’s murder trial, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is about a lot more than just Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree. One of the many things this season of American Crime Story attempts to explore is the role homophobia played in Cunanan’s story — not just on the killer himself but also on his victims and the police.
In the most recent episode, dubbed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the series largely follows Cunanan’s first victim, Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), a Naval Academy graduate serving in the Navy during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the U.S. military’s policy regarding its gay members. The beginning of the episode finds Trail working at a propane company in Minneapolis. Chatting with a fellow military veteran coworker, Trail reveals — to the surprise of his coworker — that despite being a naval officer, he abandoned a career in the Navy, a decision that continues to haunts him.
The rest of the episode follows various moments in Trail’s life, from initially meeting Cunanan to moments before his death, but it largely focuses on his time in the Navy.
When Trail prevents a shipmate from being beaten to death, after the shipmate is accused of being gay, Trail’s own sexuality comes under suspicion. When the suspicion becomes too much, Trail nearly kills himself, and later, he speaks out anonymously about the harm of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to CBS. While many viewers watching this season of ACS will remember Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell only vaguely, for nearly two decades, it was the policy forcing LGBTQ servicemen and women to stay in the closet.
The policy “allowed” LGBTQ men and women to serve in the military as long as they were actively closeted. Unable to completely overturn the ban on gay people in the military, President Bill Clinton enacted the policy in late 1993, calling it a “compromise” and “a major step forward.”
But while the policy stated that servicemen and women would not be asked about their sexual orientations, they could be discharged from the military for disclosing their sexuality or having sexual relations with a person of the same sex. According to the policy, being out while serving in the military would, “create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” In 2011, President Barack Obama formally ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, 17 years after it was put into effect. During those years, more than 13,000 men and women were discharged from the military for being gay.
What makes the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” episode of ACS so effective is that it shows how difficult Trail’s life was, as a closeted member of the armed forces (he still hadn’t come out to his parents at the time of his death) — long before Cunanan infiltrated it and ultimately killed him.