Earlier this year at the Frameline Film Festival, Vince DePersio's documentary Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey—a portrait of Lance Corporal Jeff Key's staged protest of the Iraq War ("The Eyes of Babylon")—galvinized Frameline's audiences. They voted the film their favorite documentary. It's now being included in Frameline's "Best of the Fest 2007": a one-day film event featuring audience favorites and award-winning films from Frameline31: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Semper Fi will be screening Saturday, September 22, 1:30PM at the Roxie Film Center.
Reaching back into my untranscribed coffers, I've dusted off an interview I conducted with Jeff Key during Frameline that I never had the chance to process. Now seems the perfect opportunity.
Jeff Key, the subject of Semper Fi, arrived late and disgruntled to our interview, having circled the block for a half an hour looking for parking. He hailed me from the curb, I jumped into his car, and we found a parking garage from where we scurried to a quiet lounge where we settled into iced lattes and tried to maximize the little time we had left before his next appointment.
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Michael Guillén: Congratulations, Jeff, on winning the Audience Favorite at this year's Frameline. It's always interesting for me to contrast public reception to critical response and Semper Fi is a classic example. Have you read your Variety review?
Jeff Key: I have not.
Guillén: Brian Lowry, who reviewed Semper Fi for Variety, is not—let's say—as appreciative of the film as your Frameline audience; but he did raise an interesting point that was likewise brought up in your local radio interview, and that concerns the reactions of your friends when they found out you enlisted in the Marines for active duty in Iraq. Not only your friends Stateside when they found out about your enlistment, but the friends you made while you were in Iraq when they found out about your coming out. Both sets of friends are so loyal to you and I found that truly impressive.
Jeff Keys: Does Brian Lowry give my friends a review?
Guillén: No, he just comments that the reactions of your friends is what he found "most interesting" about Semper Fi. All in all, he wasn't wild about the film.
Jeff Key: I don't care what critics say, obviously. My not having read the review tells you what [matters to me]. The fact that we won an audience award is what [matters]. I'm an activist. I'm someone who's interested in spiritual connections with other humans and I don't think that's what reviews are about really. Since the film aired, I've gotten a hundred emails from people who went to some lengths to get to me to share their personal stories, some of them gay, some of them vets, some of them who have grown up in a fundamentalist background, some of them writers that felt some connection to "The Eyes of Babylon" as part of it, and then the film too. These were incredible stories, especially from people who were not gay who had served with gay people in Vietnam. One letter was from a man who—with some measure of contrition—admitted he had lived a life of spitefulness towards gay people and he said he watched Semper Fi and had a change of heart. He felt like he wanted to apologize to me personally for all the hurtful things that he's done to gay people over his life and that he wouldn't do that anymore. Those are the responses that matter to me.
Guillén: Absolutely! And that's what I was trying to aim at by setting up this somewhat false polarity between public reception and critical response, to underscore that—as an activist—you've secured your popular response. Semper Fi was exceptionally well-received here in San Francisco. How did you feel at your Castro screening?
Key: From seeing the film, you know what my experience has been and it's similar to a lot of people who grew up gay in America, that I've had periods of great self-loathing, long periods of darkness. It becomes a habit. That becomes the norm. Experiences like last Saturday [the Castro screening], I'm having to get used to that. It's a wonderful experience standing there and having people give you that much love and then, afterwards, to have one after the other say such very nice things. I have to say, that's the process that I'm going through, being able to open myself up to that overwhelming amount of appreciation, love and gratitude, and just be right-sized about it. Because there was a time when it would probably have killed me. Like that Variety review. If the people that tell you you're a good person make you a good person, then when people tell you you're not a good person, you believe it as well.
Guillén: Surviving the judgment of others, whether good or bad, intrigues me. In Semper Fi there's the suggestion, perhaps in your personal story, certainly in the stories of many other vets, that the return to civilian life is as problematic as shipping out to combat duty. Returning vets have to carry and process their own experiences. In your case, you turned to the stage. What prompted you towards the theatre to work out your experiences? And then, subsequently, film?
Key: I didn't really turn to film. Doing "The Eyes of Babylon" was a natural outpicturing of the journals, which was my way of sharing with my fellow Marines when I was in Iraq, and sharing the experience with people when I came back and they were curious of our time there. It was just sort of natural. I'm Southern and the play is in the Southern storytelling vein. In a lot of one-person shows people are continuously playing many characters, which I don't do—I give voice to certain other people who are mentioned along the way—but, it's very clearly me telling a story and giving voice to them. It's not me portraying them per se.
I've learned so much from Vietnam veterans. They have been like great brothers and sisters to us and—as I look at them—some met such terrible ends after they came back. To one degree or another I saw that those who were able to turn their feelings outward in some way were the ones who survived and the ones who were able to help other veterans. When people shut down, then all that anger and frustration and sadness boils inside. My work now with the Foundation is to encourage other veterans in whatever is their medium. My roommate who deployed with my unit draws. He's an artist. That's his way of expressing it.
Guillén: Which foundation are we talking about exactly?
Key: The Mehadi Foundation.
Guillén: Ah yes, named after the young boy you met on your tour of duty?
Key: Right. It's a dual purpose organization. We work with veterans here in the States after they come back. It's very popular to say, "Support the troops!", everyone's got the magnet, but a third of our homeless are veterans. The lowest number of suicides from the Iraq war is 111. There's another few score that are under the investigation of non-combat accidents where their buddies would say it was a suicide.
My degree is in theatre. It's kind of natural to me that theatre would be my way. The film came about because the producer saw the play and brought in the director and they made the film. I performed the play like I've done many times and did the interview. One of the very best things about the Saturday Castro screening for me—other than I have really come to love San Francisco; it's like another home for me and it's like my family, my people, up here saying, "Good for us! It's really a victory for all of us! We're in this together!"—but, to be able to introduce those gay vets and have them stand—I'm sure they get props along the way for being vets—but for them to stand up as gay men and lesbians and say, "Yeah, this is something about me and I'm a veteran" to get it on a more completely honest level. Some of the people who give such praise to our troops are the same ones who give such persecution to gay people.
Guillén: When you returned—and clearly you had a glimpse of something you could no longer support or believe in and you wanted to speak out against U.S. policy—why did you decide to push that protest through the fulcrum of your sexual preference? Why didn't you just do a Jarhead thing and simply comment upon the situation? Why did you feel it important to stage your protest through the lens of your sexual preference?
Key: Anthony Swofford [the author of Jarhead] was out of the Marine Corps. and he was done. I would likely have been deployed and—I say this with some caution—I know people who are in the military still who are opposed to the Bush Administration's foreign policy and think it's extraordinarily dangerous, if nothing else dangerous for our nation, and they choose to stay in because they feel like they can influence other military members to behave well while deployed to the Middle East, to treat the Iraqis with respect while being cautious and protective of their fellow service members, instead of the things we saw from Abu Ghraib and the other horrible stories we hear. One of my closest friends comes to mind in particular. He says, "You remember when the leadership was not that great? I want to be a good leader to younger Marines." They do it also because they want to protect their fellow service members in a very dangerous war. As I've said before, if I thought I could save one more life by being there, I'd be there today. But I believe firmly that what I'm doing when I go and speak to members of Congress, when I go out on the lecture trails from place to place in America, I think I'm able to do more.
All that said, when I made the decision, I was not a conscientious objector in the truest sense of the word. A conscientious objector as I understand it is someone whose religion tells them they may not bear arms, they may not kill. At that point I was still . . . and, y'know, maybe still if I were in a room full of children and somebody came in there killing the children, am I really going to stand by? No. I'm going to use violence to stop it, I would say.
I am willing to stand up for representative government and to defend defenseless people with violence. Therefore, I'm not a conscientious objector. And I cannot be a party to this organized crime that is this administration, which they have set up as a fascist system. That's not hyperbole. As Mussolini defined the fascist system, it didn't have to do with race; it had to do with the corporate interests fueling the government, fueling the corporate interests. If we don't have that, I don't know what it is; we have that. If you look at the stock profiles of the companies that have contracts in Iraq, you'll wish you had invested in them four years ago, from a purely financial point of view. Those are the companies that support the campaigns of the people who push this colonization of the Middle East in this war in perpetuity, this so-called war on terrorism. The war on terrorism is ludicrous. You can't have a war on a tactic. Terrorism is a tactic and all that terrorism says is that you use the maximum force you have at your disposal to perpetuate your point of view. In that way, all war is terrorism.
Guillén: I've been reading a lot lately on Cold War rhetoric and queer identities. These studies have helped me understand more fully what the real paranoia is behind the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Speaking quite generally, your average populace would say that a butch lesbian or an effeminate gay man is really no problem because—being easily defined—they are easily dismissed. It is the "straight-acting" gay man or the feminine lesbian that—within Cold War rhetoric—is a complete security risk because it connotes a fluidity that is feared will undermine rank and file. Keeping that in mind, one of the things that most struck me about this documentary is the loyalty of your straight troop members who did not find your gayness to be any kind of security risk. I don't think I've ever seen a documentary where straight military personnel have defended a gay soldier so strongly. Was it difficult to secure their participation in this documentary? Did they have any qualms, reservations, or repercussions from their superiors for their defense of your actions?
Key: I don't know. You'd have to ask them. But one thing I do know about those men is that they're a representation of the many Marines who knew me. That's a reason why—one more time—our private lives are not necessarily of anybody's business; but, it's important for gay people to come out. There's the glass closet, as they say. If all the gay professional athletes right now came out, the ban would be lifted tomorrow. Don't Ask, Don't Tell would be lifted tomorrow if all the people in the military came out. The commitment of those men who are in the documentary, their support of me, is as much a function of who they came to know as Jeff Key as a Marine. None of them—if you held a gun to their head and said, "You must tell the truth: would this man die for you?"—they would all say many times over that they know that. They know that I love them. They know that I would never do anything to compromise my commitment to them. I'm not naïve enough to think that would always be the case. But I'm really confident in who I am. I've been through it. I've been through a battlefield my entire life. I have done the work. I know in the center of my soul that I'm okay, that homosexuality is a part of nature, and that God loves me. That's not the case with all 17 or 18-year-old people who find themselves in the military, who came from Kansas, who heard nothing but lies their whole life.
Guillén: On the IMdb profile for Semper Fi, along with the Variety review, there was a user comment—and you have probably heard several of these—but, a straight ex-Marine said your film enlightened him and for the first time he really saw what was wrong with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Your activism is what really shines throughout this project from stage to screen.
Also—my mind works in mysterious ways so bear with me—but, when I went to the Frameline Closing Night party, I was delighted to see you hanging out with RuPaul. As I was looking at the two of you, I thought, "This is the incredible spectrum of masculinity. These are men who know how to be men in a lot of different ways." To add to the complexity, you are an emotional man. That comes right across. You're loveable. That's why audiences take to you and find you charismatic. In the scene in the documentary where you're sent home with the hernia and your troop mates are dealing with your no longer being there among them, I was impressed with the emotional anchor you had provided for them, and how they became aware of the loss of that anchor once you were gone. I'm an armchair anthropologist and have long noted the role of intermediaries that gender variant people play between fixed, gendered identities. How they can, for example, inspire a woman to tap into a strength society doesn't customarily allow her or soften a man who has become too hard by guiding him to his emotional resources. I don't know if you've ever been part of the Men's Movement inspired by the work of poet Robert Bly, analyst Jim Hillman, and storyteller Michael Meade; but, they taught me that there is a specific masculine emotionality, a nurturance in fact, that is not an imitation of anything feminine at all and that is unique to the male being. You exemplify that masculine nurturance to me. It's rare to see it on the big screen so I'm glad that—whoever saw you in your stage production—saw the worth of transferring it to the big screen.
Key: Wow. Thank you for that. I haven't thought of that probably ever. Nurturing can be . . . is a very masculine trait. It's part of who we can be as men. People will say, "He's operating in his feminine nature" when he's being nurturing; but, that's not necessarily true.
Guillén: There can be that, of course, but what you were demonstrating—proven by the testimonies of your friends—is an emotional power necessary for men to survive under such a difficult situation.
Key: Our culture robs women of their ability to be strong and assertive and men of their ability to be sensitive and nurturing. They do it from the get-go. Little kids, the way we treat them based upon their genders, is incredible. Just go to the playground and watch the way adults treat boys and the way they treat girls. Especially with regard to women's issues, we're not where we were, hopefully. And maybe we're not quite where we're going yet.
My mother's family is Cherokee and they called us two-spirits because we could flow more easily between those roles. I've been a really good friend to straight men in my life because I help them to understand feelings that have not come naturally to them, and women too. As far as gender issues go, when you really look at the relationships in this culture between men and women, gay people for all our quirks kind of have it all over them. I'm so grateful I'm not straight.
Guillén: I'm glad you mention the two-spirit tradition because that underscores the historicity of it, the longstanding tradition. Have you ever read Zuni Man-Woman?
Key: No, not yet.
Guillén: Well, Will Roscoe is a friend of mine and I've learned a lot from him. What I've learned primarily is that the history of these traditional roles—which I agree are robbed from contemporary gay people and I wish much of that could come back….
Key: Maybe we'll reclaim it?
Guillén: That's probably why that sequence stood out for me in the film because these men were giving testimonial to that spirit in you. I thought, "Look, they are acknowledging and praising a quality that he had that helped keep them together as a troop." Their loss was so tangible.
Another scene that struck me in the film, borderline controversial, was your flirtation with the Iraqi, rendered through the sharing of the chapstick. I loved that scene but it seemed provocative as well because this would be what I think many people would—on the other side of the fence—say is exactly why there has to be a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and why gays pose a security risk.
Key: Right. I'm really surprised that the people who hate me haven't pulled that out. When there were protestors in Kentucky, they did. That's the part they targeted. They did the insufferable. This local clergy who was running for court room sweeper or whatever organized this protest among the local fundamentalist Christians and had made out a little pamphlet and had not only taken that part of the play but edited it. I was like, "That's the last straw right there, buddy. You're fucking with my writing. Don't fuck with my writing there, dude." I've really been surprised that more critics haven't pointed that out. I even thought about not including it in the play, to keep it to myself, not including it in the book. But it's an important part of my experience. What I do know is that—in that culture—the Iraqis were told by Saddam Hussein that, "They'll come for your women." That's part of the war culture. "They're coming for your women. They're going to take your women." In that situation where the interaction happened with the gay Iraqi, we were going to town in soft covers. We were no longer wearing helmets. It was in the beginning. I left Iraq and had never heard the word "insurgent." We went to town to make friends. We carried our weapons and we were cautious but my other Marines around me in that moment when that was happening were off buying scarves and liquor, which they were not supposed to be doing, and falafels, and in and out. It's not how people think of Iraq now where—everywhere you go—it's much more dangerous now than at that time. I thought, "Well, they're going to think that my buddies are in a firefight and I'm over there flirting with some Iraqi" and then I thought, "Well, what if some straight Marine had described a similar situation with an Iraqi woman?" Because that sort of interaction would have been absolutely forbidden for an American Marine to find this beautiful young Iraqi woman attractive and they both knew that their situation precluded any kind of interaction and they had this cautious interaction where maybe a chapstick was shared? I mean, America would cream all over themselves! How sweet! How beautiful! There it is. We are there and how would people think about that story if it was told by a heterosexual?
Guillén: That was actually in effect one of Brian Lowry's criticisms. He said that though the film might go a long way towards undermining stereotypes, it would depend upon the unlikely supposition that those holding such stereotypes would bother to pay attention.
Key: Who is this man? Was he talking about my acting?
Guillén: He said your acting is "stagy and precious".
Key: Oh good! [Laughs.] I don't care! But, no, I do, it hurts my feelings.
Guillén: Jeff, why I even bring him up is because I always like to give a person who is being criticized the chance to defend themselves against their detractors. I have ambivalent attitudes about film criticism. I'm not a film critic. I am interested in the personalities that make up film culture. It's a different process. But I do believe in the dialogue between audiences, critics and the people who make the movies. Differences of perspective are to be expected. I did pull out of his review what Brian thought was good about the film but his main complaint—as I understand is—is who is this movie really for?
Key: Well, I guess it's for all the people who are wondering if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a good policy. I guess it's for anybody who's an American citizen who's concerned about the fact that we may be about to blow this nation to Hell by our ignorant foreign policy. I guess it's for people who have struggled their entire life either with their feeling towards gay people or their feeling as gay people. Is there anybody I haven't covered?
I used to pretend that when people didn't like me or didn't like something I did, it didn't hurt. It's the way of our culture. I don't do that anymore. It really hurts my feelings and I understand that that's his job and I don't care; it hurts.
Guillén: Well, as I positioned it early on, I'm glad you've had the chance to counter this one man's critique against the hundreds who have shown you how much they have appreciated your activism and your artistry.
Key: Oh my God, yeah. I'll tell you what, if I'd gotten as many of the responses I've gotten now from the performances in the play and wherever the film has screened, the love and the acceptance and kudos I've gotten from all those people, do you think I'd trade that for one critic thinking that I did a good job? You're out of your fuckin' mind.