Group Effort Gets Airman Clemency

Etcetera Magazine

December 31, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

A coalition of national and state groups – with some surprising help from a conservative U.S. Senator – succeeded Dec. 17 in obtaining partial clemency for a gay airman convicted in September of being absent without leave from a Georgia base.

Airman Douglas Gilley, Jr. was found guilty Sept. 21 of fleeing Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. The gay airman could have faced a more serious charge of desertion for running away, he said, because he became fearful for his life after the anti-gay murder last October of college student Matthew Shepard. Gilley claimed he had asked for a discharge on the grounds he was being harassed, but base officials said at his trial that he had never revealed he was gay to any of his supervisors, co-workers or even his roommate.

Gilley was sentenced to seven months in jail, a bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of pay and a reduction in grade. He will still be discharged and cut off from pay and benefits, but thanks in part to the efforts of the Georgia Equality Project (GEP), Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 30 days were taken off his prison sentence plus credit for time served.

The gay groups wrote to Sens. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Max Cleland (D-Ga.) to ask for their help in obtaining clemency. Cleland, who was endorsed by GEP in his run for the Senate based on such pro-gay positions as his support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, did not come through. But conservative Coverdell, who has often taken positions hostile to both the gay and AIDS communities, wrote to Air Force officials saying he was watching the case and was "interested" in its outcome.

"It was limited advocacy but more than Cleland did and more than Coverdell has ever done before," commented Harry Knox, GEP executive director. "His staff told us he never interferes in military cases. But his action in this instance probably kept the Air Force on its toes and kept [Gilley's case] from being so open and shut."

In their October letter to Coverdell, the groups contradicted Air Force officials' statements that Gilley was not known to be gay and asserted their belief he was being singled out for exceptionally harsh punishment.

"Rumors of Airman Gilley's perceived sexual orientation were circulating in his unit, and several unit members asked him if he was gay," the letter said. "[He] did not believe he could safely tell his First Sergeant the source of the danger [to his life], the harassment he experienced or his sexual orientation, because he feared the harassment would increase and he would be at risk of physical attack. His First Sergeant told Airman Gilley he had to stay in the Air Force… Not knowing where to turn he fled."

The groups also pointed out to Coverdell that Gilley's fears were well-founded in light of the brutal anti-gay murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell Army Base in Kentucky in July.