Reinstates Gay Soldier

In the final ruling of a seven-year legal battle, a federal court of appeals ordered the reinstatement of U.S. Army sergeant Perry Watkins, who had been dismissed from the military because of his sexual orientation.

Summary of Event

When Perry Watkins, an African American, was drafted in 1967, he replied “yes” on a questionnaire that asked enlistees if they were gay or if they had same-gender sexual attractions. Despite the U.S. Army’s long-standing policy of excluding homosexuals and bisexuals, Watkins was admitted as a soldier. The next year, when he was investigated for engaging in prohibited homosexual conduct, he admitted in an affidavit that the allegations were true. The Army, nevertheless, dropped the investigation because of insufficient evidence. [kw]Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier (May 3, 1989)
[kw]United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier, Watkins v. (May 3, 1989)
[kw]Army Reinstates Gay Soldier, Watkins v. United States (May 3, 1989)
[kw]Gay Soldier, Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates (May 3, 1989)
[kw]Soldier, Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay (May 3, 1989)
Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban]
Civil rights;United States
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]
[c]Military;May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier[1940]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier[1940]
[c]Civil rights;May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier[1940]
Watkins, Perry
Pregerson, Harry
Norris, William

In 1975, a board of officers, with full knowledge that Watkins was gay, recommended his retention. His associates testified that his sexuality had neither created problems nor interfered with his duties. In 1979, because of his earlier admission of homosexual conduct, an Army board revoked his security clearance, but later that same year the Army accepted him for another three-year enlistment. His evaluations indicated that his service had consistently been exemplary in every way.

In 1981, after the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president, the Army issued a new and stricter regulation mandating the discharge of all homosexuals regardless of their merit. Pursuant to this stern directive, an Army board recommended discharging Watkins, but then a district judge prohibited the discharge on the basis that it would constitute double jeopardy. The judge reasoned that the charges against Watkins in 1981 were the same as those in 1975.

In 1982, Watkins was refused reenlistment in the Army because “of his self-admitted homosexuality as well as homosexual acts.” Later that year, a district court admonished the Army for refusing to reenlist him. The court based its ruling on the legal doctrine of equitable estoppel, which means that the Army’s unfair conduct precluded the service from asserting a right that it otherwise would have had (illustrating the maxim, “he who seeks equity, must do equity”). When appealed in Watkins v. United States Army I (1983), Watkins v. United States Army I (1983)[Watkins v United States Army 01] however, a panel of the court of appeals overruled the district court’s injunction. The case was then remanded to the district court, which ruled explicitly that the Army regulations did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

The new ruling allowed for another appeal. In Watkins v. United States Army II (1988), a panel of the court of appeals reversed the ruling and held that the Army’s reenlistment regulations violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the Army’s request, the court of appeals agreed to grant a full court review of the issues of the case. The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Psychological Association submitted friend-of-the-court briefs, which argued in favor of upholding the panel’s ruling of 1988.

In Watkins v. United States Army III (1989), the majority of the justices ignored the 1988 ruling and upheld the 1982 judgment of the district court, which equitably estopped (barred) the Army from refusing to enlist Watkins. Speaking for the majority, Judge Harry Pregerson declared that the Army’s unfairness in the matter constituted “affirmative misconduct.” During the fourteen years of Watkins’s career, Pregerson argued, the Army had given Watkins incorrect information about his right to reenlist in eight administrative reviews. After having overlooked the reenlistment regulations so often, “equity cries out and demands” that the Army be stopped from barring Watkins from continuing his career. Four judges dissented from the ruling and voted in favor of the Army’s position.

The majority found that it was not necessary to address the constitutional question. Two concurring members of the court, however, would have preferred to decide the case on the basis of the principle of equal protection. Judge William Norris wrote an especially strong opinion, which argued that the Army’s ban on homosexuality was unconstitutional because it discriminated “against homosexuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

President George H. W. Bush attempted to have Watkins v. United States Army III reversed, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision, which meant that it stood. As soon as Watkins was reinstated, he then retired from the Army with retroactive pay, full retirement benefits, and an honorable discharge. Watkins became a popular female impersonator under the drag name of “Simone.” He died in Tacoma, Washington, of AIDS-related complications in 1996. His life was explored in the documentary The Perry Watkins Story, Perry Watkins Story, The (documentary film) which appeared in 1997.


Because Watkins v. United States Army III was based on the narrow issue of equitable estoppel, the case did not challenge the Army’s general ban on gays and lesbians, and, consequently, it did not have far-reaching affects. Judge Norris’s concurring opinion, however, based squarely on the equal protection principle, would have had great ramifications, for it would have prohibited the armed forces from promulgating the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell] policy. Although not binding, such opinions often influence public opinion as well as the thinking of other judges.

Even with the case’s limited impact, the story of Perry Watkins served to put a human face on the struggle of gays and lesbians wishing to be part of the U.S. armed forces. A courageous man who refused to lie about his identity, Watkins performed his duties with distinction while risking his career for the cause of promoting gay and lesbian rights in the military. Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban]
Civil rights;United States
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]

Further Reading

  • Belkin, Aaron, and Geoffrey Batteman. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2003.
  • Dyer, Kate. Gays in Uniform: The Pentagon Secret Report. Boston: Alyson, 1990.
  • Lehring, Gary. Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality in the U.S. Military. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
  • Rimmermann, Craig. Gay Rights, Military Wrongs: Political Perspectives on Lesbians and Gays in the Military. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1996.
  • Shawver, Lois. And the Flag Was Still There: Straight People, Gay People, and Sexuality in the U.S. Military. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1995.
  • Shilts, Randy. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. 1994. New ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.

1912-1924: Robles Fights in the Mexican Revolution

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

October, 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military