WASHINGTON -- An Army sergeant won a decade of legal skirmishing with the military yesterday over his right to continue in uniform even though he is gay.
A brief order by the Supreme Court, with no explanation, means that Sgt. Perry J. Watkins, 42, of Tacoma, Wash., will be able to serve until he is eligible for retirement -- as long as he does not engage in explicit homosexual acts.
A 15-year veteran, Sergeant Watkins had told the Army at the time he was drafted in 1967 that he was homosexual.
Sergeant Watkins, under the lower-court order in his favor, may speak openly about his sexual preferences as a gay person, and the Army cannot discharge him for that -- even though that ordinarily would be enough to justify excluding him from the military.
He won, despite firm Army rules against retaining anyone who describes himself or herself as homosexual, because a lower court ruled that the Army repeatedly misled the sergeant into believing he could remain on duty despite being gay.
If he were to engage in homosexual acts in the future, however, the soldier could then be discharged -- provided the Army did not learn about it from Sergeant Watkins himself. The lower court said the Army could not investigate him solely on the basis of his admission that he is gay.
Few if any other gays in the military are likely to benefit from Sergeant Watkins' victory because the facts of his case were considered highly unusual. Moreover, nothing about his case, or the Supreme Court's action on it yesterday, disturbs the military's general rules against retaining gay people and against their enlistment.
Although it was a solitary victory for the soldier, there was some symbolic importance to it, since gays routinely lose cases in which they seek to stay in the military.
Sergeant Watkins told the Associated Press, "My victory doesn't require any change in the [Army] regulations. It doesn't affect the gay and lesbian community directly."
The federal government, in asking the Supreme Court to review the case, did not stress the gays-in-the-military issue but instead argued that courts have an obligation to enforce valid government regulations. There was no indication that any of the nine justices wanted to hear the government appeal in the case of U.S. vs. Watkins (No. 89-1806).
Sergeant Watkins had been investigated twice while in the military, but no action was taken against him, and he was allowed to remain in the Army until 1982, when he was denied re-enlistment.
Under the court order in his favor, Sergeant Watkins will be allowed to return to uniform and to serve the additional five years until he has achieved 20 years of service before retirement.