The latest episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace may track Andrew Cunanan’s (Darren Criss) arrival in Minneapolis to visit Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) and David Madson (Cody Fern) — whose deaths were depicted in Episode 4’s “House by the Lake” — but the episode isn’t really about Cunanan at all.
Rather, Cunanan’s first victim, Navy veteran Jeff Trail is at the center of the aptly titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” While the beginning of the episode questions how an officer in the Navy wound up working at a propane company in Minneapolis, the rest of the episode reveals how Trail’s sexuality derailed a promising military career.
The episode flashes back to Trail’s harrowing time in the Navy under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the U.S. military’s official policy towards its gay members. In the episode, Trail anonymously sits down with CBS for a special on being gay in the military, revealing that his naval career has been “over for a long time,” ever since his sexuality came under suspicion after he saved a fellow servicemen from being beaten to death. Being a suspected gay serviceman takes such a toll on Trail that it eventually nearly pushes him to end his life, before he decides to speak about it on CBS.
The CBS interview is especially haunting because it’s interwoven with a scene in which Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) comes out as gay to the Advocate, effectively depicting two very different experiences for gay men.
But while the scene could have been another of Ryan Murphy’s brilliant creative moves, Jeff Trail actually did sit down with CBS for an episode of 48 Hours.
In late 1993 as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was about to go into effect, Trail spoke out about his own experience as a gay man in the military, hidden behind a dark silhouette. He told journalist Richard Schlesinger that the ban not only weakened the U.S. military, but it was also still largely ineffective, as the military continued to be full of capable and qualified gay servicemen and women.
For the 20th anniversary of Cunanan’s murder spree, Schlesinger reflected on working with Trail for the 48 Hours special, revealing how taken he and his team were by Trail, who was risking his career to speak out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He wrote, “He was smart, good looking and very brave. He chose to speak to us because he thought it was the right thing to do. He did the interview in silhouette but he was still taking a tremendous risk with his career. He had absolutely nothing to gain by doing the interview. Yet he took the risk and spoke out. My colleagues and I left San Diego very impressed with Ensign Trail.”
Schlesinger added that the 48 Hours crew was shocked and incredibly sad when they learned that Trail was murdered by Cunanan, lamenting that his “kindness was his undoing.” While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” also depicts Cunanan and Trail first meeting at a gay bar in the early ’90s and tracks them to seconds before the latter is killed, American Crime Story’s depiction of life as a gay man in the military is by far the most important part of the episode.
One of the major themes of The Assassination of Gianni Versace is unraveling how homophobia in the ’90s played a major role in Cunanan’s murder spree, and this episode is definitely the most overt depiction of homophobia in the series thus far. While the series follows Cunanan’s horrific murder spree and looks at how he was able to commit such heinous crimes in plain sight, we’re glad FX is taking the time to address the direct impact homophobia had in the lives of Cunanan’s victims and other gay men in the ’90s.