Watkins, Perry 1948-1996
Perry Watkins 1948-1996
Military figure, entertainer
In My Country, My Right To Serve, Perry Watkins-an openly homosexual U.S. Army sergeant first class-said, “People have asked me, ’How have you managed to tolerate all that discrimination you had to deal with in the military?’ My immediate answer to them was, ’Hell, I grew up black. Give me a break. I mean, to be discriminated against because I was gay was a joke.’ I mean, ’Oh, you don’t like me because I’m gay? Excuse me, I’m sorry, but you’ve got a problem.’”
Far from being touted by the gay rights movement, U.S. Army sergeant first class Perry Watkins was essentially ignored by groups that championed the cause of gays in the military during the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Watkins himself thought it had to do with how flamboyant he could be at times.) Nonetheless, his battle “still is the only case of an openly gay GI who had gone all the way through the court system and emerged victorious,” according to Doug Honig, public education director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington state chapter, in the News Tribune (Tacoma). “The case was not legally groundbreaking. It didn’t overturn the military policy. But Perry was a role model, standing up against what he thought was an unfair policy. Perry was a real pioneer.”
Watkins grew up hearing how much alike he and his mother, Ola Watkins, were. They not only looked alike but they had similar personalities. According to author Randy Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, “Perry idolized his mother, and she respected his individuality.” And Watkins was very much an individual from a very young age. He played with dolls, dressing them up and styling their hair. He played jump rope with his friends, who consisted of the neighborhood girls. “I used to give those girls hell in my neighborhood,” he said in My Country, My Right To Serve. “I was great. They’d hate to see me coming with the jump rope....”
Watkins was born and raised in Joplin, Missouri, a small city in the southwest corner of the state. After his parents divorced, the three year old’s family consisted of his mother, sister, grandmother, and two aunts. He said that he never had the “pressure of a male role model of having to do the male-type things like football, basketball, and all that.” Watkin’s just seemed to know that he preferred to play with girls and did not care what other kids thought.
When Watkins was in junior high school his mother remarried. Watkin’s stepfather was a career military man stationed near Joplin; when he was transferred to Tacoma, Washington, shortly after the marriage, Ola and her children went with him. In Tacoma, Watkins began exploring his sexuality. Following his mother’s teachings about not telling lies, he told the truth when someone in his class asked him if he were “queer.”Later he claimed to have never been ridiculed or harassed for being gay.
Born Perry James Henry Watkins on August 20, 1948, in Joplin, Missouri; died March 13, 1996, in Tacoma, Washington; son of Ola Watkins (a nurse). Education: B.A. in Business and Theater.
U.S. Army, soldier stationed in Korea, Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, Germany, 1968-84; honorable discharge as Sergeant First Class, 1984. Social Security Administration, employee, 1984-94. Public speaker and lecturer, 1984-95. Subject of the documentary Sis: The Perry Watkins Story, 1994, Coauthor, with Gary McGill, Sovereign Immunity (screenplay).
By the time he had graduated from Tacoma Lincoln High School, Watkins had taken several years of dance classes, including studying with the Tacoma City Ballet Company. He won several awards in speech tournaments and had been a finalist for the school cheerleading squad-as good as he could do because at that time, blacks were not accepted on the Tacoma cheerleading squad. Shortly after graduating, Watkin’s stepfather was transferred again, this time to Germany. Watkins hoped the country would be the perfect place to study ballet. The Vietnam War changed his plans, however.
In 1967, Watkins was called to the draft board in Frankfort, Germany, for his induction physical. Describing the experience in My Country, My Right To Serve, he explained, “I received my little draft notice, went down to the induction center, and checked the ’yes’ box for ’homosexual tendencies.’ One of the arguments the army made in court was that I didn’t [verbally] say I was homosexual.” Watkins figured that once military personnel saw that he had checked the box, he would be sent home because the military did not accept gays.
Instead, Watkins was sent to a psychiatrist. That doctor referred Watkins to a lieutenant colonel psychiatrist who grilled Watkins about his sexual practices. He also asked Watkins about whether he had a problem serving his country or going to fight in Vietnam, and Watkins explained that he had no problems in regard to serving his country anywhere. According to Conduct Unbecoming the colonel then wrote on the back of Watkin’s induction form: “This 19-year-old inductee has had homosexual tendencies in the past.... Patient can go into military service—qualified for induction.” Thus, Watkins began his military service as an openly gay man in May of 1968.
Watkins finished basic training, then participated in advanced training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. There he met a white, gay draftee, who was being kicked out of the military because he had told someone he was gay. Watkins demanded he too be dismissed from the army. His commanding officer denied the request. Then, while stationed at Fort Hamilton, New York, Watkins attempted to be dismissed because he was denied a job when a commander saw his military record stated he was gay. Again, he was denied. The army claimed they could not prove he was gay. Even after the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigated some of Watkins’s sexual partners, the result was the same. At another time Watkins requested CID investigate the fact he had been attacked by a soldier that wanted to rape him. They instead investigated Watkins for his sexual activities. Finding no proof of sexual activities, Watkin’s was reassigned to clerk training in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The only reason Perry Watkins could surmise for not being discharged was that he was black as other discharges were given to gay men who were white. Shilts later wrote in Conduct Unbecoming that “the doctor probably figured Watkins would be drafted, go to Vietnam, get killed, and nobody would ever hear about it again. At least that was how Watkins sized up the situation years later with a wry chuckle.” Watkins’s two-year stint in the army ended in 1970.
After trying to re-adjust to civilian life, Watkins discovered he would need more education for the type of job he wanted. He knew he could get that education in the army. So Watkins went down to the recruiting station in Tacoma and signed up again. Again, he admitted to being gay, and, once more, he was accepted for duty in Germany. During his second enlistment Watkins acted no differently than in his first time in the army.
One day Watkins was approached by a commanding officer who was planning entertainment for a big celebration on the military base. Watkins volunteered that he had sometimes been a female impersonator in civilian life. The coordinator of the show signed him up. Playing the costumed role of a woman named ’Simone,’Watkins entertained the troops and families of the army. Watkins act was so well received that he had to get an agent to handle the many requests for his performances. He played at army clubs all over Germany and other bases in Europe.
At the same time Watkins had received a security clearance from the U.S. Army. After initially being turned down because of potential blackmail because he was gay, Watkins received his clearance when he explained that no one could blackmail him since everyone already knew he was gay. He also survived another CID investigation after someone reported him as being gay. Again the army suggested that Watkin’s sexuality could not be proven.
Suddenly, after years of immunity, Watkin’s commanding officer began discharge proceedings against him. The hearing took place in October of 1975. The commanding officer was quoted as saying in the News Tribune (Tacoma), “In my opinion, Specialist Watkins is the best clerk I have known.” Still, the officer pressed the case because military rules required him to do so. Others testified that while they knew Watkin’s was gay, no trouble had ever arisen out of that fact and nobody anticipated having problems continuing to work with him. On the basis of such testimony, the discharge board voted to retain Watkins in the U.S. Army. According to Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, the board report stated that “there is no evidence suggesting that his [Watkins’s] behavior has had either a degrading effect upon unit performance, morale, or discipline, or upon his own job performance.”
During his 15 years of service in the military, Watkins received several commendations from his superiors, both for his regular work and the work he did entertaining as ‘Simone.’ He also served two tours of duty in Korea-once stationed at the demilitarized zone, where shooting occurred frequently. Despite all of his military work and honors, when Watkins’s security clearance was up for renewal in 1979, it was denied because of his gay status. In 1981, after two years of trying to get it back, Watkins sued the U.S. Army. That step led to his being brought before the discharge board though he had served nearly 16 years without hiding his sexuality and had been allowed to re-enlist three times. Times had changed, and the military had become increasingly less tolerant of gays and lesbians.
Watkins was finally discharged because of his homosexuality. Citing the unconstitutionality of double jeopardy, a court later overturned the ruling and ordered that he be re-admitted to the military. In other words, the discharge board had tried Watkins twice on the same charge, first finding him innocent, then ruling him guilty. Once found innocent of a charge, no one may be charged a second time with the same offense, known as double jeopardy. When Watkins tried to re-enlist in the army in 1982, he was denied because of his stated homosexuality. Suing again, the army and was ordered to re-enlist him, but the army fought back, and the court battles went on for some time. In 1984, Watkins was formally discharged.
Watkins spent a great deal of time looking for work as a civilian. He had managed to finish college while in the military, and had bachelor’s degrees in business administration and theater. Watkins was able to find work at the Tacoma office of the Social Security Administration, meanwhile finding support through the ACLU. Eventually the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the army had treated Watkins unfairly in discharging him when they had “plainly acted affirmatively in admitting, re-enlisting, retaining, and promoting,” Perry throughout his career.
The U.S. Justice Department appealed the decision, but, in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the army’s appeal of this decision, and Perry was ordered reinstated. “Rather than re-enlist however,” the News Tribune (Tacoma) reported, “Watkins settled the case ... receiving retroactive pay, full retirement benefits, an honorable discharge and a retroactive promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.”
After the settlement, Watkins settled into a fairly quiet life until his death in 1996. He remains the only person ordered by courts to be reinstated to active military duty after being dismissed for homosexuality. In his last years, he lectured and spoke to various groups around the country on topics relating to being gay in the military. Having tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, he also worked with terminally ill people. In 1994, a documentary entitled Sis;The Perry Watkins Story, chronicled his drag queen performing days. Watkins died in Tacoma on March 17, 1996, from complications brought on by AIDS.
Upon his death, Watkin’s attorney and friend, Jim Lobsenz, described Watkins as “a very honest guy, a very stubborn guy, and a brave guy,” in the New York Times. Similarly, Gary McGill, a childhood friend of Watkin’s told The Washington Blade, “[Watkins] was just a huge character, very intelligent, with an incredibly wry sense of humor.” Sovereign Immunity, a screenplay based on Watkins’s life, coauthored Watkins and McGill, was optioned by a Los Angeles-based film production company in 1996.
Shilts, Randy, Conduct Unbecoming, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Humphrey, Mary Ann, My Country, My Right to Serve, HarperPerennial, 1990.
News Tribune (Tacoma), March 21, 1996, p. Al.
New York Times, March 21, 1996, p. B8.
The Washington Blade, March 22, 1996, pp. 1, 32.
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