History September 26, 2021 at 09:00 am

The unknown story of Perry Watkins, the gay sergeant who took on the U.S. military and won

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor September 26, 2021 at 09:00 am

September 26, 2021 at 09:00 am | History

Perry Watkins near home in Tacoma, WA, 1983. Courtesy Steve Stewart, Fair use image

Perry James Henry Watkins knew growing up that he was gay. When his friends asked him, he told them the truth. Born on August 20, 1948, in Joplin, Missouri, Watkins’ mother, who accepted his sexual orientation, asked him to always be truthful. He should never lie nor “give a hoot what anybody thinks,” wrote Randy Shilts in “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military”.

Watkins remained truthful about his sexual orientation throughout high school in Tacoma, where he took dance classes. He studied at the Tacoma City Ballet and later earned a BA in business and theater. In 1967 when he received his draft summons during the Vietnam War, he marked “yes” on his inductee questionnaire when asked about “homosexual tendencies”, according to BlackPast.

Watkins had every reason to believe he would never serve because the U.S. military barred homosexuals. But the Army in a response sent Watkins to a psychiatrist. There, he was interrogated about his sexuality and asked if he had qualms about serving his country. Watkins answered, “No problem.” He began his military career as an openly gay man began in May 1968 after the doctor had said he was qualified.

“The doctor probably figured Watkins would be drafted, go to Vietnam, get killed, and nobody would ever hear about it again,” Shilts wrote. “At least that was how Watkins sized up the situation years later with a wry chuckle.”

During the early years of his military career, Watkins tried several times to leave the military because of his sexual orientation considering the Army had dismissed some White gay peers. But anytime he tried leaving, the military denied his request. Watkins believed that he was denied because of his race. In 1970, his first two years in the Army ended but he needed funding for college, so he reenlisted.

For the second time, he was truthful about the homosexuality question and was accepted. Watkins would serve twice in Korea in the early 1970s. Anytime he was off duty during that period, he performed in drag under the stage name of Simone in Army clubs throughout Europe. But by 1975, Watkins’ commanding officer started proceedings to discharge him, without warning. A hearing was held in October that year beginning a four-year administrative process to kick him out. Watkins fought against this.

In 1979, his military-clearance renewal was rejected because he was gay, despite all of his military work and honors. Watkins sued the Army two years later. The Army responded by discharging him for being gay. The fact that the Army had earlier accepted his sexual orientation but later removed him for it became the center of his long court battle, as stated by BlackPast.

“For 16 years the Army said being homosexual wasn’t detrimental to my job,” Watkins said in a 1988 interview. “Then, after the fact, they said it was. Logic is a lost art in the Army.”

In 1989, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ordered the Army to allow Watkins to re-enlist. It ruled that “despite the military’s unequivocal ban on homosexuals, it would be unjust to permit the Army to invoke that policy in Mr. Watkins’s case, given his multiple re-enlistments, the fact that he had told his superiors of his homosexuality on several occasions during his career and his ‘exceptionally outstanding military record'”, The New York Times reported.

The ruling was appealed by the Bush Administration but in November 1990, the Supreme Court gave Watkins his victory. The New York Times reported that Watkins, rather than re-enlist, settled the case a year later, receiving retroactive pay of about $135,000, full retirement benefits, an honorable discharge and a retroactive promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.

Watkins, in his last years, lectured throughout the United States on topics related to being gay in the military. He also worked with terminally ill people after having tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, reports said. Watkins died from AIDS-related complications in Tacoma on March 13, 1996. He was 48.

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