A lot of stories that are called Kafkaesque aren’t really. The story of Perry Watkins and his experience with the U.S. military is. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1948 and drafted in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, openly gay 19-year-old Perry had every reason to believe he’d never serve—not because he objected to serving his country, but because the U.S. military barred homosexuals. But the Army took him anyway. Then after 15 years of exemplary service, they threw him out. The reason? Because he was gay.
Perry didn’t just walk away with his tail between his legs. With the help of the ACLU, he fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and after an eight-year battle won reinstatement—one of the first to do so.
There’s more to learn about Perry Watkins and his landmark legal case than you hear in his Making Gay History interview, so please have a look at the resources and links that follow below. Also below, you’ll find a complete transcript of the episode.
The 1983 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Watkins v. United States Army is a breathtaking must-read.
The New York Times published an article in 1991 detailing Perry Watkins’ settlement with the U.S. Army following his win in the courts.
A 1994 documentary, “Sis: The Perry Watkins Story,” summarizes Watkins’s life and struggles with the U.S. Army.
Another must-read is Alcyee J. Lane’s 1994 article, Black Bodies/Gay Bodies: The Politics of Race in the Gay/Military Battle, which was published in Callaloo, a journal of African diaspora arts and letters.
Perry Watkins died of complications from AIDS on March 17, 1996. His New York Times obituary can be found here.
The Washington Blade wrote in 2016 about the U.S. Senate confirmation of the first openly gay Army secretary, Eric Fanning.
For a thorough history of gay and lesbian people in the U.S. military, we recommend Randy Shilts’ 1993 book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military.
You can also read about the U.S. military’s former “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in Nathaniel Frank’s 2009 book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History!
Perry Watkins was a 19-year-old American college student living in Germany and studying dance when his draft number was called. It was 1968. The war in Vietnam was at its peak with more than a half million U.S. troops deployed there.
Young Perry was one of nearly 300,000 people drafted that year. But as an out gay man he had every reason to believe that after a quick trip to the Army’s induction center in Tacoma, Washington, he’d be back in Europe and dancing again. But that’s not what happened.
During the 15 years Perry served in the Army, he became an unlikely warrior in a battle against the military’s anti-gay policies. He was thrown out in the end because he’d been honest from the very start about who he was. But with a stellar record of service, he wasn’t about to walk away quietly.
So here’s the scene. It’s mid-November 1989 and I’m in Tacoma, Washington, sitting in Perry’s living room in semi-darkness. It’s cold. Too cold to take my coat off. Perry is bundled up, too, and explains that he can’t afford to heat the house. So I feel especially guilty when I ask Perry where I can plug in my tape recorder because I’m running low on battery power. I ask about the noise coming from downstairs. Perry tells me that two of his friends are doing laundry. I feel less guilty about my tape recorder.
In my research I’d seen lots of photos of Perry in newspaper clips, mostly in uniform and clean shaven or with a substantial mustache. But sitting across from me now in this chilly living room is a handsome man with close cropped hair, a beard, and a broad smile. Perry’s every gesture offers a glimpse into his past as both a dancer and a drag performer, named Simone. I weave past his expressive hands while he’s mid-anecdote to clip my microphone to his jacket. I press record.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Perry Watkins, Sunday, November 19, 1989, 5:30 p.m., at the home of Perry Watkins in Tacoma, Washington. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
I want to go back in history first, how’s that? And then we’ll work our way back up to the present.
Perry Watkins: Wonderful. Honey, you ask, I’ll grant it. I’m a good fairy.
EM: This is… this is… this is the kind of interview I love. I’ve talked with a lot of people, and the most torture for me is when I ask a question and I get, “Yeah.” “No.”
PW: You don’t think I’m going to give those kinds of answers, huh?
EM: No. Did you know you wanted to work in the military?
PW: I didn’t want to. I did not check the box “yes” because I wanted to go in the military.
EM: You didn’t want to.
PW: No. That’s why I checked the box “yes.” I wasn’t planning to go into the military. I checked the box “yes” and I was drafted anyway.
EM: You checked the box that said “homosexuality”?
PW: Would you like to see a copy of the form?
EM: I believe you! I believe you! You checked the homosexual box.
EM: You were drafted.
EM: What year were you drafted?
EM: The Vietnam War.
PW: Yeeeeah, good thinkin’!
EM: I went to school.
EM: I’m not that young.
EM: So, were you shocked?
PW: Yes! Absolutely!
EM: How did—tell me the chronology of this. You went, you got your notice—I’m speechless.
PW: You should see the look on your face, it’s wonderful. You didn’t realize that?
EM: No, I didn’t.
PW: No, most people don’t realize. I was not trying to go into the military. That’s why I told them I was, that’s why I find it absolutely ludicrous that the Army is in court saying, “We don’t want this man here.” Well, why the hell did you take me?
PW: You know? Excuse me. And why am I the one who is accused of being at fault. It is amazing. But no, I checked the box “yes.” They sent me in to a psychiatrist, who said to me—he baited me, it was funny, and I knew that’s what he was doing. He came in and he says, “Why did you check this box ‘yes’?” And I went, “Because you asked me to fill the form out honestly.” “Well, do you object to going in the military?” “No!” I didn’t want to go in the military. Who did?
PW: But I certainly had no objection to serving my country.
EM: You were raised to be honest.
PW: Extremely so. Why I really checked the box was because I thought, if I go into the military, I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m gay. I know myself well enough to know that. So when I get thrown out, Mom will be angry if I lie. That was why I checked the box. When I get put out of the military, Mom will be more angry with me for lying than why didn’t I just tell the damn truth to begin with.
So then he said, “Well, what do you like to do?” I said, “Well, the same thing that, you know, anyone who is gay likes to do—I mean, you know, like oral, anal sex, whatever.” “No, I mean specifically what do you want to do?” This is a psychiatrist. And I looked at him and said, “You mean to tell me you’re a licensed psychiatrist and you don’t know what a homosexual does?” And then he got angry with me, and it was, “I want to know what you like to do.” So he made me tell him that I like to suck dick and get fucked in the ass, specifically.
Then he turns around and says, “Do you ever date women?” Now, stop and think about that. Those were his exact words, “Do you ever date women?” This is a man who’s just made me say I like to suck dick. You’re not gonna ask me do I ever sleep with women, do I ever have sexual intercourse with women, do I ever fuck women? No, you’re going to say, “Do you ever date women.” Well, now, what queen do you know who doesn’t?
EM: Right. You said…
PW: “Yes!” His finding was that I was homosexual but qualified for military service. Now, according to the regulation—and this is why I find it amusing, because the Army is always tooting about, “Our regulation says a homosexual can’t be in the military”—you’re right. Your regulation requires that that man make a determination that if I were suitable for military service, that I was lying, that I am not homosexual, that’s the only way you can put someone in the military who checked that box “yes.”
EM: So, you’re drafted. You’re drafted.
PW: I’m drafted, yeah. Walk into the draft board in downtown Tacoma. Walked up the steps and three guys looked up that I’d gone to high school with. From the time that I was in junior high school, I told people that I was gay.
PW: Uh, I had this relationship with a young man that told someone in my mechanical drawing class, and I walked in and he told them. “Perry Watkins gave so-and-so a blow job the other night.” I mean, it was all over school the next day. Well, from that point on, of course, I never had to ask. And I didn’t get beat up, or anything—well, I did get, once, once I got beat up by kids at school, once, I got hit one time. Um, otherwise it was just fun and games all the way through. I mean, it was great. I couldn’t have asked for a better advertising campaign. It was really funny.
So I walked up the steps and, and here’s 15, 20 other guys sitting around—these three guys stood up. “Well, hi Perry, how are you doing?” I said fine. And they’re so used to talking about the fact that I’m gay, that they just looked at me and went, “Well, what are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I’ve been drafted.” And one of them turned around and looked at me and said, “You didn’t tell them?” I said, “Of course I told them.” Well, by the time I went in and got all my paperwork processed and was back out, of course, everybody there knew, he’s gay.
So here I am in basic training and word is like… [makes a sound like a whirlwind].
EM: There aren’t many guys who go through basic training openly gay and survive it. You did it.
PW: There was never a major problem. Through basic training, I mean, these people just accepted me as being gay. It was like, oh, so? Who cares? He’s himself.
Uh, I requested discharge three times. First time was simply because I was kind of fed up with the system. I’d only been in for two and a half months. And it was like, I’m not gonna put up with this bullshit.
EM: What kind of bullshit?
PW: My biggest fear was that someday I was going to be going through what I am going through now, and I didn’t want that. So I thought, well, I need to get out of here. So I requested discharge because I was gay, and I was told no. That’s what I was told. We can’t prove—okay, fine. Next, that was when I was going to school to be a clerk/typist.
After that I was assigned to school to be a chaplain’s assistant. I’m called into the chap—uh, the commandant’s office and I’m told, “You can’t complete this course, because you’re an admitted homosexual.” I said, “Wait a minute.” “No, you can’t stay here.” Why? “Well, because you’re gay, and I can’t have a chaplain’s assistant who’s gay.” Fine, then put me out of the Army. He refused to put me out. I said, “Wait a minute. If I’m gay enough not to be in this school, I’m gay enough to be out of the military.”
EM: This is the second time.
PW: That is the second time. We’re only at the fourth month. I didn’t wait, I didn’t drag ass to ask for getting out, I’m in a hurry to get out of here. So they send me to Fort Belvoir as a clerk/typist, because I couldn’t finish chaplain’s assistant because I was gay. Why can I not be a chaplain’s assistant but I can be in the Army? Well, there was no answer for that. ’Course not, there was a war in Vietnam. We don’t want to get rid of him. Now, remember, I’m Black.
I get to my unit. Basically, everybody in my unit just kind of accepted me. Until one night five guys decided to sexually assault me. I’m upset the next morning. I go in and I just have a fit.
EM: They assaulted you.
PW: Yeah. They tried real hard. They were not successful in actually completing any sexual acts, but…
EM: They tried.
PW: They ran me around pretty good. Five.
EM: You must have been scared half to death.
PW: Yeah. More than half. But, I go in the next morning and I said, “Look, I’m not going to deal with this. No, I want out. That’s all there is to it. No, I’m gay, and I want out.” Do you know what the military did? What they investigated was not the assault. Their only question was, “Will you give us the names of two people you’ve had sexual relationships with?” The fact that five men sexually assault another man in your barracks is not of interest to you. Our system of justice, our system, our military system of justice, “Oh, that’s alright for them to assault you. What we’ve gotta prove is that you’re gay. The crime is not that they assaulted you, the crime is that you are an admitted homosexual.”
Well, after having just been assaulted by these five men, I thought, well, fine. I’ll give you what you want, so I gave them two names of people that I had been to bed with. One was in the military, one was not. They investigated this for three months, came back, and said, “Well, none of these people corroborate what happened, we can’t prove that this ever happened,” so since they couldn’t prove that any sexual acts ever occurred, I had to stay in. The crime is that the man is gay. Not that these people… Scary.
EM: Did you have second thoughts about giving them the names of anybody, people who were gay? The two names?
PW: Yes, I really didn’t want to. And where they screwed up was, coming back to me and saying, “Well, gee, we can’t prove this, but if you give us some more names, we might …” I said, “No, I will never do that again.” I said, “You had your one chance. And I really don’t feel I should have done that even then, because that wasn’t the issue. But since I have, I will never do it again.
And I will tell you, as far as the five people who assaulted me, if any of them ever look cross-eyed at me again, tell them don’t ever go to sleep. Because I will take a bunk adapter and rearrange your face. I am not going to put up with this kind of shit. I am gay, you people put me in this damn Army, and it’s up to you to see to it that I am protected.” I said, “And if one of them even so much as looks cross-eyed my way again I will do my best to dislocate his head from his body. And if you think I’m bullshitting you, you try me.” I never had another problem in the remaining 15 years.
EM: So this is all in the first year.
PW: This is within the first six months.
Every white person that I know, including the man that is downstairs right now, who checked that box “yes,” was told, “Nope, you can’t go in.” This was not just an isolated case. This was probably very common practice, particularly among people who felt like, oh, well, yes, let’s send all the Blacks to Vietnam. I mean… The reason I was drafted is simply because they didn’t expect me to be here in 20 years to talk about it.
I would be curious to do a statistical report, an investigative-type report, on the number of people who checked the box “yes,” what their race was, and what the final jurisdiction of their paperwork was. How many of them that were white were drafted anyway? So that’s kind of how it relates.
EM: So you spent the next 15 years doing what?
PW: Having a wonderful time. I worked in personnel, I went to college and got a four-year degree. I traveled, I lived in Europe for eight years, I lived in Korea for two, I learned a lot about people, I learned a lot about myself, I enjoyed my life, I enjoyed my work. I was not sitting there stagnating and waiting to retire, it wasn’t like I wasn’t being productive, I obviously was. I didn’t get an exemplary record for nothing. And I wasn’t having major problems.
Every unit I went to people looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re gay.” “Right, I’m openly gay!” They opened my records, and good grief! Everything they see says, “This man is a homosexual, but he functions in an exemplary manner.” Fine. Every time I was sent to a psychiatrist for an evaluation, they would do the same thing: “Yes, he is homosexual. But, no, it is not detrimental to his job performance.” Exactly what they would write in a record, you know?
EM: What changed?
PW: In 1980 the Army had told me they were going to revoke my security clearance because I was gay. This is the fourth time the Army is telling me this. Every other time, what the Army did was say, “We’re going to revoke your security clearance because you’re gay.” I said fine. They’d take it, they’d send off a letter to the security people at Fort Meade, Maryland.
A month later, they’d send a letter back, and they’d come back and say, “Never mind. You’re an admitted homosexual, so you’re not a security risk. Therefore, we’re not going to revoke your clearance.” This happened three times. The fourth time they said this, I said, “I’m tired of this shit. Either give me my clearance or get off my back.”
Well, when we filed in court to have my security clearance reinstated, the Army immediately jumped up and said, “Well, he can’t be in the Army anyway, because he’s gay.” Suddenly, we’re gonna change the rules of the game. You destroyed 15 years of my life, because I said I was homosexual, and then you waited 15 years to decide, “Oh, okay, we’ll go ahead and throw him out.”
EM: How did your life change when you were—you were essentially fired from your job.
EM: What did you do?
PW: Lost everything I had. It was a 12-and-a-half-year relationship. That ended. In part, I’m sure, as a direct result of the fact that things changed so drastically. This is a rental. I used to own a house not a mile from here. I lost it because, hey, guess what, when I got thrown out of the Army I didn’t have an income.
I had to file bankruptcy, and I basically had to find a job anyplace I could. And any time you go out and apply for a mid-level management-type job as an office assistant or administrative assistant or personnel supervisor, or something like that, they would look at my qualifications and go, “God, great. Fifteen years in the military, a four-year degree in business, hey, wonderful. Wait a minute, why do you only have 15 years? Why didn’t you stay for 20?” Which of course then brings the story to light, because I mean, what am I going to do, lie?
EM: You would have had a pension at 20 years, right?
PW: I would have had a pension at 20.
EM: So you had to explain your story.
PW: Yeah. So, then it’s like, “Oh, well, okay, we don’t mind that you’re gay, that’s not a problem, but what is it you did after 15 years that caused the Army to throw you out?” You tell them the truth. “I didn’t do anything. I took the Army to court to get my security clearance back.” Right. Sure.
EM: Well, the Army would never do that.
PW: The Army is not going to invest 15 years in somebody and then throw them out if they didn’t do anything. You just, you’re just not telling us. So you never get called back for—to get offered the job. You get offered the entry-level jobs that pay 7 dollars and 50 cents an hour. Well, that would be fine if I were just out of college. But we’re talking 15 years and a mortgage. Fifteen years’ work experience and a mortgage that needs to be paid. I can’t do that. So I lost everything, and I had to start from scratch basically, and that’s where I am. That’s why you’re sitting here in a house that’s so cold you can see my breath when I talk.
EM: This is 1989. We’re nine years down the road since you started fighting this case.
PW: Eight years, actually. Eight-year anniversary last month. Well, let’s just go back a little bit, 1968. If someone had said to me, “If you go into the military, I can see into the future and I am accurate, if you go into the military, this is going to happen to you, and this is what’s going to be the end result, and you’re going to have to become this person, you’re going to have to do these things,” I would have said, “Thanks, but no thanks. Get somebody else.”
EM: Even today you’d say that.
PW: I don’t want to do this. Um… If I had been given that choice, I was not given the choice.
EM: Of course not.
PW: Basically what happened why I didn’t drop it, to refer back to your question—why didn’t you drop this in 1981? It’s the principle. I didn’t ask to be put in this position, but I’m here. And along with being honest, the other thing my mother taught me somehow along the way is do the best you can. That’s all we can ask of you. That’s all. And so I do.
EM: So it’s as pure as the principle.
PW: It’s simply that.
EM Narration: Perry Watkins never gave up and in 1989, after an eight-year legal battle, a Federal appeals court ordered Perry’s reinstatement to the Army. It was the first ruling by a full appellate panel that struck at the military’s ban on gay and lesbian service members. The Bush Administration appealed that ruling, but in November 1990 the Supreme Court, without comment, let it stand.
Perry had the option to reenlist, but he was done. He was offered a settlement and took it. He got a retroactive promotion to sergeant first class, $135,000 dollars in back pay, full retirement benefits, and an honorable discharge.
In 1993, Perry got to celebrate his victory in a very public way as the grand marshal of the New York City’s annual Pride march. Just three years later, at the age of 48, Perry Watkins died of complications from AIDS.
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