July 11, 1951 – Vernon E. Berg III
We live a better life today because of the bravery of Vernon E. “Copy” Berg . We should be inspired to change the injustices we see so we can make life easier for other people.
Berg was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and artist. He was the first Naval Academy alumnus to actively fight the policies against gay people serving in the military.
Berg was born in Port Jefferson, New York. He was called “Copy” because he was so much like his father, Commander Vernon E. Berg Jr., who served as a Navy chaplain. Berg III graduated with the Class of 1974 from the Navel Academy in Annapolis, Maryland with a Bachelor of Science Degree.
While at the Academy, Berg was prolific at his art which appeared regularly in The Log, the U.S. Navy magazine, plus the Navy Art and Printing Club posters, tee-shirts, Beat Army buttons, plus dinner and holiday programs. He designed sets and acted on stage in the academy’s musicals. He sang in the Naval Academy Choir and Glee Club. Berg:
“It’s not that a Midshipman can draw, write or sing well, its that a Midshipman can draw, write or sing at all.”
After graduation from the Naval Academy, Berg reported to his first ship, the USS Little Rock, flagship for the Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. The ship’s home port was Gaeta, Italy.
While studying at the Naval Academy, he met and fell in love with E. Lawrence Gibson, who had a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and was a civilian theatre director who was teaching and working at the Academy. In 1975, the couple had a small wedding ceremony in New York City’s Central Park.
At Berg’s urging, Lawrence took a job teaching Public Speaking to Naval personnel stationed on the USS Little Rock. When they began sharing Berg’s apartment in Gaeta they discovered they had already been under surveillance by Naval Intelligence for six months.
In July 1976, both were separately confronted by Navy intelligence agents who seized correspondence in their apartment containing “terms of endearment.” Berg said his “moral convictions, based on his Presbyterian family background” and reinforced by the Academy’s honor code, led him to acknowledge having sex with three civilian men in the last several years. Gibson was fired and Berg was given a dishonorable discharge because he was queer.
After Berg sued the Navy, the U.S. Armed Forces adopted a policy of generally granting honorable discharges to homosexuals. In 1978, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Berg and Sgt. Leonard P. Matlovich of the Air Force had been unfairly discharged, although it did not reinstate them, as both had sought.
Berg was one of the first to stand up to the military. People forget that in 1976 that took a lot of courage. Tens of thousands of people have benefited from his fight. As a result of the legal action, his discharge was upgraded to honorable in 1977. After Mr. Berg’s suit against the Navy, which had given him an other than honorable discharge as an ensign in 1976, the armed forces adopted a policy of generally granting honorable discharges to homosexuals.
The story of Gibson and Berg’s time together is the center of Gibson’s memoir Get Off My Ship: Ensign Berg v. The US Navy (1978). The couple settled in Brooklyn and were interviewed together on WBAI radio in 1979. They broke up the next year.
While Berg’s court case was unfolding, President James Earl Carter‘s administration had been putting pressure on the Pentagon to change its policy against homosexuals. Midge Costanza, a top aide to Carter, and a lesbian, was instrumental in the effort;
In 1981, the Department of Defense reaffirmed its ban on gay men and women serving in the military, but it amended its policy to state that those forced out solely for reasons of homosexuality would receive an honorable discharge. The change applied retroactively as well so that any person who had ever been discharged for homosexuality could apply to have their discharge upgraded.
Berg earned a master’s degree in Design from Pratt Institute where he became a Gay Rights activist. Berg attracted attention as a prolific artist on the New York City’s art scene who documented life with HIV/AIDS in sculptures, paintings, photographs and thousands of cartoon drawings in hundreds of sketchbooks that he called the ”pages of my unfinished Surrealist novel.”
His art is varied, energetic, and vital. His activism and his insistence upon equitable treatment, first for gay service members, and later for people living with HIV/AIDS, served as the drive for his work. Near the end of his life, he wrote:
“Art has not had content for a long time—it’s been abstract and removed from popular dialogue.”
He unflinchingly took on the with issue of living with AIDS in his work, but remarkably enough, he managed to do so with whimsy.
Berg was taken by a plague we called AIDS in Manhattan on January 27, 1999.
Gibson continued to teach theatre. When he told his parents at 18 years old that he was gay, his father urged him to commit suicide and his mother convinced him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. Gibson wrote in detail about these experiences in his personal correspondence with Berg, and in his second book, a semi-autobiographical novel Escaping Dark Places (2009). He left this world in 2012, taken by “natural causes”.
161 boxes of the Copy Berg Papers are now part the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.
For more information about the work of Copy Berg and Visual AIDS, go to: visualaids.org.