The July 1999 fatal beating of Pfc. Barry Winchell by a fellow soldier has prompted an investigation of anti-gay harassment at various Army posts by top investigator Lt. Gen. Michael Ackerman. Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell. His roommate Justin R. Fisher was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison last Saturday as part of a plea bargain in order to avoid charges of being an accomplice to murder and helping to cover it up.
The case highlights the 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military at the price of denying and hiding their sexual orientation. “Critics say that in practice the policy doesn’t work because suspected gays are threatened and harassed,” says the Associated Press. The wording of the policy was intended to allow gays to serve, and to impose discharge only in cases of proven homosexual conduct; but its language is vague and does not offer protection to servicemembers who are suspected of being gay.
A December 1999 press release from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force announced that 70% of Americans favored gays in the military, and noted that discharges on the basis of sexual orientation have increased 86% from 1993 to 1998.