Born On This Day, 1948: Perry Watkins

Jim Burroway

August 20th, 2016

Photo by Rex Wockner

Photo by Rex Wockner

(d. 1996) The Tacoma, Washington, teen was always open about his sexuality. He was out in junior high school. He was out when he studied ballet. His mother told him he should never lie or “give a hoot about what anybody thinks.” So when he was drafted into the army in 1967, he checked the “yes” box for “homosexual tendencies” on his paperwork. The doctor at the induction center saw it, but decided Watkins was qualified for service. Watkins figured the doctor assumed he’d be sent to Vietnam, get killed, and no one would hear about it ever again. After several more rounds of psychiatric interviews, and Watkins repeating very plainly that he was gay — and that he wasn’t just saying that to get out of the draft — he was inducted in May 1968 into the U.S. Army.

At first, he thought they’d changed the rules somewhere along the way — until a friend was discharged for telling his commanding officer the friend was gay. The only difference Watkins could see between his friend’s situation and his own was this: his friend was white. Meanwhile, another African-American friend who had also checked the “yes” box was also inducted, with no major problems. So it was a shock when Watkins applied to become a chaplain’s assistant, and his application was denied because he was gay. Angry, Watkins sought a discharge. The Army denied his request saying it couldn’t be established firmly that he really was a homosexual. In other words, he was too gay to be a chaplain’s assistant, but not gay enough to be kicked out. He became a personnel clerk instead.

Perry WatkinsWhen his service was up in 1970, Watkins returned home to Tacoma, but realized he’d need more education to get a decent job. The Army could provide that. So he signed up again. And like the first time, he marked on his paperwork that he was gay. When he was inducted again, he showed up with twice as much luggage as usual: for Watkins and for “Simone,” a drag character he developed at at Tacoma gay bar called the Sand Box. When he reported for duty in the personnel office at a Pershing missile unit in Frankfurt, Germany, a recreation officer asked what he did in civilian life. “I was a female impersonator,” he said. The recreation officer recruited Watkins to perform in a military show. It was such a success that Watkins got an agent who booked him in NCO and enlisted men’s clubs throughout Europe. When Simone competed against eleven other actual women in an Army beauty pageant, Simone won. Simone’s act even got written up in Stars and Stripes. When Watkins noticed that married soldiers got the day off for their wedding anniversaries, he demanded the day off on the one year anniversary of meeting his German boyfriend. He got it.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have been any more out that Watkins. So it must have seen rather comical when the Army’s CID began investigating reports that Watkins was gay in1972. CID investigators  inspected his locker and took photos of his drag paraphernalia. They interviewed him and he confirmed that he was gay. They talked to several other soldiers in Watkins’s unit, all of whom also confirmed Watkins was gay. But because Watkins refused to name anyone he slept with, the CID dropped the investigation.

In 1975, while serving as a mail clerk outside of Seoul, South Korea, the prior investigations into Watkins’s sexuality caught up with him again. This time, the Army tried to discharge him. But Watkins was confident during his discharge hearing in October. His outstanding record, his awards, his diploma, and the witnesses who praised his performance and said they’d work with him again — all of that impressed the discharge board, which opted to keep him in the army — much to his commanding officer’s surprise and relief.

Meanwhile, Simone kept performing for the USO.

By 1981, Watson was stationed at Fort Lewis, back home in Tacoma, determined to stay for another seven years to qualify for his pension. But problems already arose the year before when his security clearance was revoked for performing in drag and because he did “not deny that he was a homosexual.” Watkins contacted the ACLU, who represented Watkins in his appeal of the revocation. When that went nowhere, he filed suit in Federal Court. This put the government in an untenable bind. Its official policy was to discharge all gay people. But Watkins’s record clearly showed that in practice, the Army only discharged those it wanted to discharge and kept the others. When the Army held its discharge hearing and found Watkins “undesirable for further retention in the military service,” the Federal District Court judge pointed to the 1975 discharge hearing and ruled the Army committed double jeopardy.

Watkins was back in the Army for the remainder of his enlistment. When he tried to re-enlist in 1982, the Army refused until a Federal judge ordered his re-enlistment. When his enlistment was up again in 1984, a Federal Appeals Court had overturned the judge’s ruling and the Army discharged him again, this time acting so quickly that Watkins was unable to get a lawyer and a court order before he was drummed out.

Watkins tried, without much success, to enter gainful employment in civilian life. Having by then appeared on national television and becoming something of a local celebrity in Tacoma, potential employers shied away from hiring him. Meanwhile, his appeals dragged on. Finally, in 1989, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Army to allow Watkins to re-enlist. That ruling was stayed, preventing his re-enlistment, but the following year, an eleven-member panel delivered its en banc ruling, once again ordering the Army to let Watkins re-enlist. Pointing out that the Army knew about his sexuality since the day he was drafted, the court’s order would “simply require the Army to continue to do what it has repeatedly done for 14 years with only positive results: re-enlist a single soldier with an exceptionally outstanding military record.” The Army had “plainly acted affirmatively in in admitting, reclassifying, reenlisting, retaining and promoting” Watkins throughout his career, and it was unfair to discharge him after that.

The court’s ruling was narrow. It didn’t touch on any constitutional questions, and it only applied to Watkins only. The GHW Bush Administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which let the Appeals Court ruling stand. Watkins and the Army then settled the case a year later. Watkins declined to re-enlist in lieu of the the Army restoring his retroactive pay of about $135,000, full retirement benefits, an honorable discharge and a retroactive promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.

[Source Randy Shilts. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993): 60-63, 78, 155-156, 161-162, 218-219,241-243, 383-386, 395-398, 425, 448-450, 641-642, 718-719.]

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