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Perry Watkins Describes his Mistreatment by the Army

Perry Watkins was a gay African American soldier who was drafted to serve in the army during the Vietnam War. He was open about his sexuality throughout his entire career. Despite this, in 1981, the army revoked his security clearance after 13 years of service. Army officials stated that his homosexuality made him unfit to serve. Watkins filed a lawsuit in response, citing the fact that the army had been aware of his sexuality since he was first drafted, and that he had served faithfully ever since. This passage is an excerpt from an interview, in which Watkins discussed his experience in the army and the legal battles he fought for his rights. In 1988, the court ruled in Watkin’s favor, making him one of the first people to successfully challenge the military’s exclusion of LGBTQ+ service members.

Perry (Interviewee): 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?

Eric (Interviewer): What changed?

Perry (Interviewee): 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... 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.

Source | Eric Marcus, interview with Perry Watkins, November 19, 1989. Making Gay History, podcast audio, https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/perry-watkins/
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “Perry Watkins Describes his Mistreatment by the Army,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 4, 2021, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2822.

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