Perry J. Watkins, an openly homosexual Army sergeant whose long battle to stay in the military led to a victory in 1990 before the Supreme Court, died Sunday at his home in Tacoma. He was 48.
The cause was complications from AIDS, said a friend, Mark Jesch.
Watkins identified himself as homosexual when he was drafted in 1968 and served openly as a gay man - even performing in drag under the stage name of Simone. He was permitted to re-enlist three times before the Army sought his discharge.
In 1989, a federal appeals court ordered his reinstatement, in the first ruling by a full appellate panel that struck at the military’s ban on gay and lesbian service members.
Watkins had been instilled by his mother with the notion that he should never lie nor “give a hoot what anybody thinks,” wrote Randy Shilts in “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.”
So he simply checked the “yes” box in the category “homosexual tendencies” during his pre-induction physical examination in 1967. The doctor who reviewed the matter the next year deemed him qualified for service.
“The doctor probably figured Watkins would be drafted, go to Vietnam, get killed, and nobody would ever hear about it again,” Shilts wrote. “At least that was how Watkins sized up the situation years later with a wry chuckle.”
In the late 1970s, when off duty, Watkins would perform as Simone in Army clubs throughout Europe. “Perry Watkins was not going to let a little thing like the Army get in the way of his show-business career,” Shilts wrote.
But in 1981, the military adopted a more stringent policy on homosexual service members. The Army began proceedings to oust Watkins and he was forced out at the expiration of his enlistment in 1984.
“For 16 years the Army said being homosexual wasn’t detrimental to my job,” Watkins said in a 1988 interview. “Then, after the fact, they said it was. Logic is a lost art in the Army.”
In 1989, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, voting 7-4, ordered the Army to allow Watkins re-enlist. The court did not tackle the broad question of whether homosexuals ought to be permitted to serve but rather cited the fact that Watkins had been permitted to re-enlist.
Judge Harry Pregerson said the court’s ruling 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 Bush administration appealed the ruling but in November 1990 the Supreme Court let it stand, handing Watkins his victory.
Rather than re-enlist, however, Watkins settled the case a year later, receiving retroactive pay of about $135,000, full retirement benefits, an honorable discharge and a retroactive promotion from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.
For the past two years, Watkins had been collaborating with a childhood friend, Gary McGill, on a screenplay about his life. The script, “Sovereign Immunity,” has been optioned to Tyhurst Productions in Los Angeles, McGill said Wednesday.
Watkins spoke to groups ranging from Reserve Officer Training Corps programs to therapists learning how to deal with terminally ill patients.
Watkins is survived by his parents and a sister but Jesch and McGill said the family members did not want to be identified publicly.
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