SAN FRANCISCO — Can the stories of queer soldiers being marginalized, brutalized, and disenfranchised in the United States be considered dreams, or would it be more appropriate to call them nightmares?
As the United States enters another war in Western Asia, it will be the first time in our country’s history that openly queer soldiers will be able to participate in combat. As a queer man, I’ve been personally disappointed that the two largest movements in the past decade for gay rights in the US — marriage equality and openly serving in the military — are causes that don’t speak to my life or struggles and, in some ways, make me feel as though other members of my subculture are trying more to be like straight people than maintain an identity of our own.
What’s more, I feel that the repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hasn’t been properly examined in our culture. The policy’s demise has been characterized as a victory, while issues including the effects of forced closeting and the state of openly queer soldiers currently serving remain unexamined. During a recent pilgrimage to San Francisco, I saw an exhibition investigating many of these issues. Entitled Among Dreams, it explores the trauma, stories, and dreams of LGBT soldiers, giving hope for a fuller picture of queer people’s experiences.
Artist Chelsea Rae Klein spent the past two years traveling across the US to interview and photograph LGBT veterans and servicemen. In so doing she not only captured documentary portraits and insights into her subjects’ personal stories, but also created artworks drawing on their experiences and dreams.
The works span many media — photo collages, text works, quilts, neon signs, and videos — conveying the stories of soldiers as well as Klein’s interpretation of them as a queer woman, focusing on the theme of dreams. Through these objects, she evokes the hazy, hypnagogic states one experiences on the threshold between sleep and consciousness. The resulting imagery can be brutally realistic, or more colorful, with light and colors reminiscent of a fantasy.
Regarding the project’s theme, Klein told me: “Dreams fill and inform gaps in the conscious mind, asking what does the body remember, what is the residual and internalized impact of a history of forced hiding, silencing and violence? What is the cost of war? How can we begin to heal?” (Emphasis mine.)
The exhibition is coupled with an online archive where one can investigate the struggles of Klein’s subjects more deeply. From the rape of a young soldier, Ashley, which made him distrust members of even his own community, to a member of the Navy who was the target of a brutal witch hunt, each story offers harrowing accounts of what it’s like to be gay in the military, in the US and in the world. The exhibition is the amuse bouche to the archive’s more satisfying narrative meal.
One of Klein’s subjects, David, says in his interview: “I knew going into [the military, in 2004] I was going to have to go in the closet and hide this part of me I knew was there … and there are secondary effects to not being who you are to the world.” After the repeal of DADT, and participating in this project, he says he’s now able to live a more authentic life. The scars, however, never quite disappear.
Some of Klein’s pieces get so caught up in their own beauty that the raw emotion of oppression is forgotten. One of the exhibition’s video installations, for instance, shows disarming footage of people leaping from the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks, an image one of the soldiers had recurring nightmares about. Klein presents it mashed up with footage of a beautiful figure floating in water overlaid with blooming flowers. Aside from a few truly traumatic images interspersed and married with other visuals, many of the works in Among Dreams feel like an erasure of truly horrific situations that haven’t been divulged.
Lots of people get to leave the closet, but nightmares and skeletons may still lurk there. Klein’s work shows us that even though trauma may mold the identity you have today, dreams can be the key to forging a surer, more authentic self.