Patricia Kutteles, who was driven by her son’s murder to help repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, has died of cancer at the age of 67.
In 1999, Kutteles received a phone call saying that her son, Pfc. Barry Winchell, had been kicked in the head during a fight in his Army barracks. She would later learn that Winchell had in fact been bludgeoned to death while he was asleep, the culmination of a period of harassment over his presumed homosexuality.
For months, Winchell had been the target of homophobic bullying because he was dating a transgender woman. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), which was signed by President Clinton in 1993, forbade the Army from discriminating against or harassing closeted service members, but it also barred openly gay and lesbian soldiers from military service. The policy, Kutteles wrote in a CNN Op-Ed, made “it impossible for gays or those, like Barry, who are perceived to be gay, to seek the help of their superiors without risking investigation and discharge.”
During Fourth of July weekend in 1999, one Pvt. Calvin Glover picked a fight with Winchell, who knocked him to the ground. Another soldier, Specialist Justin R. Fisher began to mock and goad Glover because he had been defeated by a presumed gay man. Eventually, Glover grabbed a bat and beat Winchell to death, cracking his head “like an eggshell,” according to one witness.
Glover was court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison. Fisher received a 12-and-a-half-year sentence.
Though an investigation by the Army inspector general found evidence of harassment in Winchell’s unit, it did not recommend that any senior officers receive punishment. Kutteles nevertheless filed a wrongful death suit against the Army, claiming that the institution had failed to intervene in the escalation of abuse that lead to Winchell’s death. The claim was denied.
Undeterred, Kutteles embarked on a fight against systemic homophobia within the military. She partnered with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and gave an impassioned speech against DADT on Capitol Hill. Spurred by Kutteles’ activism, the Pentagon launched an investigation and discovered that homophobic harassment was pervasive among the Armed Forces.
“Everything I’ve fought to find out — and I don’t care whether Barry was gay or not — leaves me worried about the safety of all the young men and women the Army is supposed to be looking after,” Kutteles said in a 2000 interview with The New York Times. “I can’t bear to hear that Army recruiting song: ‘Be all that you can be in the Army.’ My son tried to be all that he could be and he got murdered.”
In 2009, President Obama announced that he would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and DADT was repealed by Congress in 2010.
Read more at The Washington Post.