It was my second day in Basic Training. We had just arrived to our barracks and we were called to formation for Drill Sergeant Inspection. The Drill Sergeants walked through the lines giving each new recruit an evaluating glance. Then my Platoon Sergeant stood in the front of formation and made his first announcement. “Boys, you are in the Army now. There is something I am going to tell you and I don’t want you to ever forget it.” He said and then continued in a loud booming voice. “If you’ll lie, then you’ll steal. And if you’ll steal, you’ll suck a dick.” He then launched into what would become an often repeated speech about the importance of honor and integrity. As far as my Drill Sergeant was concerned you needed three things to be a good soldier. You needed honor, integrity, and heterosexuality. And his warnings as to what would happen to any “funny boys” he found in his barracks put me on notice from the get go. I was a gay man in the U.S. Army and it could be a very dangerous place to be. Luckily for me, with one small exception, my homosexuality never proved to be a huge problem. I played my role and most of my fellow soldiers either knew or suspected that I might be gay, but for the most part, no one really cared. I caught a break by being assigned to a good unit.
PFC Barry Winchell wasn’t so lucky. Barry Winchell was an infantry soldier in the Army who began to date the male-to-female transgendered showgirl, Calpernia Addams in the late 1990s. Two of Winchell’s fellow soldiers began spreading rumors around the base about the relationship and Winchell became a target of harassment (this would later lead to allegations that General Clark had allowed an anti-gay climate to fester on his base but the Senate Armed Services Committee would later exonerate General Clark of any wrongdoing). The harassment eventually led to a fight between Winchell and a soldier named Calvin Glover. Winchell bested Glover in the fight and Glover became the butt of jokes for losing. A soldier named Justin Fischer who had a history of altercations with Glover began and continued to goad Glover about losing the fight with Barry. And after a weekend of heavy drinking Glover would later take a baseball bat and beat Barry Winchell’s skull in while Barry lay sleeping. Winchell would later die from massive head injuries on July 6 1999. As a result, Fisher was sentenced to 12.5 years through a plea bargain and has since been released from custody in 2006. Glover continues to serve a life sentence for murder.
Supporters of repealing the discriminatory policy against gay soldiers were happy to hear that President Obama and Congress are now pushing for a “compromise” on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But upon hearing the details of the compromise many advocates of repeal feel betrayed. Anti-DADT Crusader Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo have now staged a “Dignity Fast” hunger strike to protest the proposed Pentagon “study” of military readiness and openly gay soldiers, as well as the complete lack of any type of non-discrimination policy which is essential for a true and viable repeal. Cases like Barry Winchell’s are rare but that won’t matter. It happened and could happen again. And that’s all the enemies of repeal will need. And sadly, since this pathetic excuse of a “compromise” does not include any type of non-discrimination policy that clearly spells out what is expected of all soldiers – openly gay soldiers can and will still face harassment from homophobic soldiers, as well as from unit commanders that allow a virulent anti-gay climate on base – and this can and will lead to problems with unit cohesion.
This “compromise” will not lead to gay soldiers being able to serve openly in the military and by ceding control to the Pentagon and excluding a non-discrimination policy; it may set back the efforts for real repeal for decades. It’s not only junk legislation, it’s potentially dangerous legislation.