I finally received the copy of Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians In The U.S. Military by Randy Shilts I had ordered and began reading it today. I'm only about 10% finished, but so far this book is just amazing. Growing up an Army brat, I've always enjoyed "war stories" from military veterans. It's not the violence I find appealing but instead learning how these veterans faced such adversity and how these experiences forever changed their lives. This book certainly seems to fall into that genre thus far, with the added challenge of these veterans being gay in an environment unfriendly to their sexuality. I truly regret not knowing about this book in 1994 when it first published. Given how much I usually get out of the personal stories of veterans, this book could have helped save me about a decade of struggling with this issue myself. Pity.
While there are other stories I've read so far in this book that are more compelling in terms of gay veterans participating in combat, with undoubtedly more to come, the story of Perry Watkins has caught my interest the most. His story is also relevant in today's debate about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that bars gays from openly serving in the military. In 1967 Watkins was a young black man who had grown up in the virulently racist Old South. Amazingly enough, he was open and upfront to others about his homosexual orientation which at that time made him a hated minority within a hated minority. The official policy of the U.S. military back then of excluding homosexuals was similar to what it is today under DADT, in that "the presence of homosexuals would seriously impair discipline, good order, morals and the security of our armed forces". During the latter part of the Vietnam War, the military found itself in desperate need of more soldiers and then as seems to be happening in today's conflicts in many cases turned a blind eye to the presence of openly acknowledged homosexuals within the ranks. The main difference between gays openly serving then and those doing so today is that the former were mostly draftees in a largely draftee military, while the latter freely enlisted into an all-volunteer force. Yet even with this difference, the "unit cohesion" argument used by advocates of DADT today falls flat given the military's own undermining of it during wartime. Thus we get to the story of how Perry Watkins served in Vietnam despite being very open about his sexuality:
It was in Germany, in August 1967, that Perry [Watkins] was summoned to the U.S. Army Ninety-seventh hospital in Frankfurt and given his draft physical. In the course of filling out the forms, right after checking no to the questions about drugs or alcohol, Perry checked yes to the question about homosexual tendencies.
Watkins would later be asked to recall what happened next, and no one would ever step forward to challenge his recollections. The Army psychiatrist wanted to know precisely which sexual acts Watkins performed with men.
“Oral and anal sex,” Perry answered evenly.
“I can’t accept that answer,” the psychiatrist said.
“I like [oral sex] and [anal sex],” he said.
“Do you ever date women?” the psychiatrist asked.
Perry thought it was strange that when he talked about having sex with men the doctor wanted to know about precise acts but when he talked about sex with women he referred to it as “dating”. The psychiatrist, a lieutenant colonel, pressed further, trying to dissuade Watkins from his admission – to no avail.
Perry was sent to another psychiatrist, with no explanation on the accompanying paperwork as to why he was there. But Perry took a number-two pencil and wrote in big block letters in the space provided, “I’m here because I checked ‘homosexual tendencies’.”
“Why did you do that?” asked the second psychiatrist.
“Because it’s the truth.”
“Do you want to go in the Army?”
“I don’t object going in the Army,” Watkins said. He was not trying to get out of the draft; he was simply telling the truth.
“Do you want to go to Vietnam?” the psychiatrist asked.
“I wouldn’t object going to Vietnam.”
“Why did you check the box?”
“Because it was the truth.”
The psychiatrist then wrote on Perry’s form: “This 19 year old inductee has had homosexual tendencies in the past…Patient can go into military service – qualified for induction.” And May 1968 saw Perry Watkins, an acknowledged gay man, into the United States Army…
A few months later, in advanced training at Fort Dix to become a clerk/typist, Perry was talking about the local gay hangouts with another gay draftee. Perry suggested they go barhopping the next weekend.
“I won’t be here next week,” the recruit said.
When Perry asked why, the young man said, “Because I’m gay.”
He had not engaged in any sexual acts in the Army, he said. He had just told his commanding officer that he was gay and they started the paperwork to kick him out.
Perry marched into his commander’s office and explained that he was homosexual and that wanted to be discharged. For a month, Perry did not hear anything. Then he was told that he could not be discharged for being gay, because he could not really prove he was gay. In order to do that, he would have to be caught in a sexual act.
Perry contemplated this odd treatment. There was one difference between the draftee being bumped and himself, Perry observed. The other man was white.
It's almost amusing how the essentials of his story could be repeated many times over by gay soldiers openly serving today. If you haven't read this book I highly recommend that you get a copy.
(this is also posted over on Gay Patriot)