Perry Watkins

In My Country, My Right To Serve, Perry Watkins-an openly homosexual U.S. Army sergeant first class-said, “People have asked me, ’How have you managed to tolerate all that discrimination you had to deal with in the military?’ My immediate answer to them was, ’Hell, I grew up black. Give me a break. I mean, to be discriminated against because I was gay was a joke.’ I mean, ’Oh, you don’t like me because I’m gay? Excuse me, I’m sorry, but you’ve got a problem.” his battle “still is the only case of an openly gay GI who had gone all the way through the court system and emerged victorious,” according to Doug Honig, public education director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington state chapter, in the News Tribune (Tacoma). “The case was not legally groundbreaking. It didn’t overturn the military policy. But Perry was a role model; standing up against what he thought was an unfair policy. Perry was a real pioneer.”

Perry James Henry Watkins was born on August 20, 1948, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when Perry was three. The family consisted of his mother, sister, grandmother, and two aunts. He said that he never had the “pressure of a male role model of having to do the male-type things like football, basketball, and all that.” Perry just seemed to know that he preferred to play with girls and did not care what other kids thought.

In 1967, Watkins was called to the draft board in Frankfort, Germany, for his induction physical. Describing the experience in My Country, My Right To Serve, he explained, “I received my little draft notice, went down to the induction center, and checked the ’yes’ box for ’homosexual tendencies.’ One of the arguments the army made in court was that I didn’t [verbally] say I was homosexual.” Watkins figured that once military personnel saw that he had checked the box, he would be sent home because the military did not accept gays. Instead, Watkins was sent to a psychiatrist. That doctor referred Watkins to a lieutenant colonel psychiatrist who grilled Watkins about his sexual practices. He also asked Watkins about whether he had a problem serving his country or going to fight in Vietnam, and Watkins explained that he had no problems in regard to serving his country anywhere. According to Conduct Unbecoming the colonel then wrote on the back of Watkin’s induction form: “This 19-year-old inductee has had homosexual tendencies in the past.... Patient can go into military service—qualified for induction.” Thus, Watkins began his military service as an openly gay man in May of 1968.

Watkins finished basic training, then participated in advanced training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. There he met a white, gay draftee, who was being kicked out of the military because he had told someone he was gay. Watkins demanded he too be dismissed from the army. His commanding officer denied the request. Then, while stationed at Fort Hamilton, New York, Watkins attempted to be dismissed because he was denied a job when a commander saw his military record stated he was gay. Again, he was denied. The army claimed they could not prove he was gay. Watkins’s two-year stint in the army ended in 1970. Watkins discovered he would need more education for the type of job he wanted. He knew he could get that education in the army. So Watkins went down to the recruiting station in Tacoma and signed up again. Again, he admitted to being gay, and, once more, he was accepted for duty in Germany. Watkin’s commanding officer began discharge proceedings against him. The hearing took place in October of 1975. The discharge board voted to retain Watkins in the U.S. Army. According to Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, the board report stated that “there is no evidence suggesting that his [Watkins’s] behavior has had either a degrading effect upon unit performance, morale, or discipline, or upon his own job performance.”

Despite all of his military work and honors, when Watkins’s security clearance was up for renewal in 1979, it was denied because of his gay status. In 1981, after two years of trying to get it back, Watkins sued the U.S. Army. That step led to his being brought before the discharge board though he had served nearly 16 years without hiding his sexuality and had been allowed to re-enlist three times. Times had changed, and the military had become increasingly less tolerant of gays and lesbians.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the army had treated Watkins unfairly in discharging him when they had “plainly acted affirmatively in admitting, re-enlisting, retaining, and promoting,” Perry throughout his career.

The U.S. Justice Department appealed the decision, but, in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the army’s appeal of this decision, and Perry was ordered reinstated. “Rather than re-enlist however,” the News Tribune (Tacoma) reported, “Watkins settled the case ... receiving retroactive pay, full retirement benefits, an honorable discharge and a retroactive promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.” Watkins died in Tacoma on March 17, 1996, from complications brought on by AIDS.