3 min

Killed sailor’s story dumps the politics

TV sticks to mother's emotional state

You hope and pray it doesn’t happen to you or anyone you know, but every time a straight guy looks at you sideways and gives you one of those curious impenetrable stares that could mean anything from desire to homicidal rage, you have to wonder.

So it’s bit difficult watching a movie like Any Mother’s Son that lays out the reality of gaybashing in a way that obviates any possibility of sticking your head in the sand. (My own preferred position.)

A 1997 US made-for-TV movie only now making its Canadian debut, Any Mother’s Son is the true story of Dorothy Hajdys (pronounced HAY-jiss), a working-class Chicago mother who lost her son Allen Schindler to a gay bashing.

A sailor with the US navy, Schindler was stationed aboard an assault ship in the Pacific. The ship was rife with violent homophobia. The commanders did nothing to stop it. Early in the movie, a thug walks up to a sleeping gay man and punches him in the face. A fellow sailor watches but does nothing.

The movie doesn’t go into it, but Schindler was subject to a lot of this kind of harassment. One night in Sasebo, Japan, while the crew was on shore leave, two of his shipmates, Terry Helvey and Charles Vins, decided to have a bit of “fun” with him.

On the night of Oct 27, 1992, they followed Schindler, 22, into a public restroom and beat him to death. His body was so badly disfigured, officials had to identify him from his tattoos. A coroner’s report said he looked like he’d been trampled by a horse.

At first his mother (played by Bonnie Bedelia) knew none of this. All the navy told her was that her son had been killed, not how, why or by whom. At first, in fact, she didn’t even know her son was gay. He’d tried to tell her years before but she wouldn’t listen. She thought “queers” were like Klinger on MASH, men in dresses.

But a quick glance at his diary (Allen was in love with a dancer from New York) and a trip to a memorial service in San Diego gives her some real-life experience of gay men. To her surprise, they seem to care.

It takes a while longer for Hajdys to figure out the navy’s complicity in both her son’s death and the subsequent cover-up. Officials knew Vins had kicked Allen three times in the head but only charged him with minor crimes. He served only 78 days. Helvey wasn’t so lucky. By the time he was brought to trial, Hajdys and the press were in full cry.

If there’s a story here, it’s one of experience and education leading to compassion and justice. Looking alarmingly like Meryl Streep in working-class mode, Actor Bedelia charts an affecting transition from passive, ignorant, conventional homophobe to avenging fury.

But her story is incomplete. It should build to an emotional and political climax where Hajdys finds love and acceptance through an enlarged circle of friends and a broader sphere of action. Instead, it fizzles out on a rather insular note, with Hajdys battling for her son but no one else. She travels to Japan and sees Helvey sentenced to life in prison.

In real life, Hajdys turned her sorrows to greater political account. She became something of a gay activist and appeared at countless gay rallies, shouting “You don’t mess with my kids!” to great applause.

The movie is told entirely from the straight point of view and for once that seems aesthetically apt. A gay sailor’s story might have been entirely too depressing. But politically the approach is a lie. Activists like Michael Petrelis did as much as Mrs Hajdys to pressure the military and push the case forward.

Off screen, Dorothy Hajdys told the Chicago Tribune that if her son were alive today, he would be a gay activist. “His life on that ship was pure hell and he would be fighting to make things better.” On screen, she never uses the word activist and barely manages to accept the presence of gay men.

It’s an affecting story with odd Canadian footnotes – Peter Keleghan doing a homophobic variant of his supercilious character on Made In Canada and Fiona Reid playing a nasty, small-minded bigot. Just don’t take it for the whole truth.