Busting Up the Tearoom Trade (Updated 3/22/19)

This post, which I published on September 9, 2007, describes events that occurred in 1988 and 1989. Please see my update at the end.
—Paul Woodford

I couldn’t care less about Senator Larry Craig, but his public humiliation brings back disturbing memories.

When I arrived on Okinawa in late 1988, US military police had just busted up an American GI “tearoom trade” ring. The officers and senior non-commissioned officers caught up in it had been discharged and shipped back to the States. Lower-ranking enlisted members were being tried by courts-martial. The story was all over Armed Forces Radio & Television Service and the Pacific Stars & Stripes.

I didn’t think much of it initially; I was busy getting established in my new unit. But within a couple of days of my arrival, the Stars & Stripes printed the names of the disgraced officers and senior NCOs (which included a USAF major who’d been an AWACS mission commander and a Marine top gunnery sergeant). Someone at the squadron told me that although the men named were already off the island, their wives and children were still here, pending transportation back to States. They couldn’t avoid exposure; the kids had to continue attending classes; their mothers had to buy groceries at the commissary. This in a small community where everyone knew everyone else, where AFRTS was the sole provider of radio and TV, where S&S was the only newspaper.

Some general somewhere wanted to pile it on, I guess, and saw to it the names got out. I was shocked, honest to god, and still feel sorry for those families.

Of course, the military hates homosexuality … always has, still does … but in my experience, such matters were dealt with quickly and quietly. My experience, it turned out, had some gaps in it.

More than a year later I was appointed head of a three-officer tribunal tasked to determine whether a military member convicted by court-martial would receive a dishonorable, general, or honorable discharge. Our guy? To my surprise, he turned out to be one of the younger enlisted men caught in the Great Homo Roundup of 1988: an Air Force tech sergeant, still on the island, his career over, now facing his final humiliation.

The OSI had it all on videotape: our guy, another guy, a public restroom on the Navy hospital grounds at Camp Lester, a “glory hole” in the side of a toilet stall … it was as sad, sleazy, nasty, and painful to watch as anything you can imagine. Sitting before us was a young NCO with what otherwise would have been a great record. He’d enlisted with a high school diploma. Working 12-hour shifts on the flight line, he’d taken night classes and earned a BA and MA. His wife and children stood by him through the entire ordeal and in fact were waiting outside the JAG courtroom as we decided his fate.

When the three of us retired to make our judgment, I said “Look, this guy paid for what he did. Let’s don’t destroy whatever chances he has left for civilian life. He did a good job for the Air Force until this. He’s off the island and out of the service as soon as we’re done here. I want to give him an honorable discharge and let him go.” The other two officers agreed with me, and that was our decision.

I found out later there were a dozen other men in the same boat, court-martialed and convicted, still on Okinawa, waiting for their own discharge boards. Unlike the officers and senior NCOs who were immediately kicked out and sent home without courts-martial … forced to resign, actually … the other men had to endure the slow process of military justice, meanwhile assigned to menial administrative duties in backwater offices here and there, closely supervised.

I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about the military’s intolerance of homosexuals. I really don’t care what people do privately at home, as long as it’s between adults and consensual, but if I encountered men (or women, or men and women, for that matter) engaging in sex in a public restroom, I wouldn’t think twice about calling the cops … some things just ain’t right. At the same time, I’m against entrapment, which always seems to be law enforcement’s response to sexual crimes, and I don’t see any point in subjecting the entrapped to public humiliation.

I hope the man we discharged kept his family together, put his college education to work, and rebuilt his life. I hope he stopped cruising public restrooms, but I suspect not … that seems to be a way of life for some people. All I know for sure is it’s not for me … after watching the OSI’s videotape of what went on in that restroom at Camp Lester, I couldn’t get it up for a year, and I still dread having to use public restrooms.

Update (3/22/19): As mentioned at the top, all this happened 30 years ago, at a time when gay servicemen and women were actively pursued, identified, shamed, and forced out (usually with dishonorable discharges). When I decided to share the story, in 2007, active homosexuality was still forbidden in all US military branches.

A nuance I chose not to write about was the USAF’s limited tolerance for lesbian officers, rated officers (pilots and navs) in particular. This is entirely anecdotal: I can’t prove it with facts and figures, but I worked alongside a few such women during my career. They weren’t open or out, but neither were they secretive.

These women, in my experience (and I hasten to admit that for all I know it may have been different in other service branches or in other USAF commands), escaped the persecution directed at gay male officers and gay enlisted personnel of either sex.

Things change. The gay witch hunts of the past today seem silly, misguided, even quaint. Believe me, though, they weren’t quaint at the time. Persecution and punishment was harsh, and countless lives were ruined.

© 2019 – 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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