Forgotten Gay Heroes: Perry Watkins – Watkins vs. The United States Army (1982)

Perry Watkins was an African-American gay man, and one of the first service members to challenge the ban against homosexuals in the United States military. Watkins was also the only person ordered reinstated to active military duty by a court after being dismissed for gay.

The United States Army drafted Perry Watkins in 1968.  Watkins, an openly gay African American male, was proud to serve and  stated honestly that he was homosexual when military officials asked him and admitted him at a time when it was forbidden for openly gay men to serve. But the Army needed men to fight at a time when American citizens were becoming wary of the war machine.

During Watkins’ initial three-year tour of military duty, he served in the United States and Korea as a chaplain’s assistant, personnel specialist, and company clerk.

A year after his induction, in 1968, Watkins signed an affidavit stating that he had been a homosexual from the age of 13 and that, since his enlistment, he had engaged in sodomy with two other servicemen, a crime under military law.

When his first enlistment period expired in 1970, Watkins received an honorable discharge, but his reenlistment eligibility code was listed as “unknown.” In 1971, Watkins requested correction of the reenlistment designation and the Army corrected the code to category 1, “eligible for reentry on active duty.”  Shortly thereafter, he reenlisted for a second three-year term. In 1972, Watkins was denied a security clearance because of his homosexuality, and the Army again investigated him for allegedly committing sodomy and again terminated the investigation for insufficient evidence. Following another honorable discharge in 1974, the Army accepted Watkins’ application for a six-year reenlistment.  In October 1979, the Army yet again accepted Watkins’ application for another three-year reenlistment.

But in 1981 the Army promulgated a regulation that mandated the discharge of all homosexuals regardless of merit and after 14 year of military service Major General Elton recommended that Watkins be discharged.

Watkins fought the discharge and on October 5, 1982, the district court enjoined the Army from refusing to reenlist Watkins because of his admitted homosexuality, holding that the Army was equitably stopped from relying on the nonwaivable disqualification provisions of its new regulation. The Army re-enlisted Watkins for a six-year term on November 1, 1982, with the proviso that the reenlistment would be voided if the district court’s injunction were not upheld on appeal.

In 1989, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, voting 7 to 4, upheld the injuction and ordered the Army to allow Mr. Watkins re-enlist. It was the first time a U.S. appellate court ruled against the U.S. military’s ban on service by gays and lesbians. The Bush administration sought Supreme Court review of that decision without success. Watkins initially planned to reenlist, but settled instead for a retroactive promotion to sergeant first class, $135,000 in retroactive pay, full retirement benefits, and an honorable discharge.

But Watkins story took a sad turn in the early 1990s, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was enacted during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Watkins rushed to help the gay community but was ignored. The individuals chosen to play such a role where white veterans like Keith Meinhold and Joseph Steffan. Watkins’ experience as a drag artist and frank admissions of sexual encounters with other male servicemembers created a “public relations problem, in the words of Tom Stoddard, head of Lambda LegalReferring to Margarethe Cammermeyer, who was embraced by movement leaders, Watkins wrote: “we’ll go with a [white] woman who led a lie for fifty-sex years before we go with a black man who had to live the struggle nearly every day of his life.”

Sadly Perry Watkins did not live to see the repeal of DADT. 

He died on March 17, 1996 at his home in Tacoma, Washington of complications relating to AIDS .

Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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