Who was Allen Schindler?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday April 4, 2007
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Allen Schindler. Photo: Genyphyr Novak
Allen Schindler. Photo: Genyphyr Novak

April 1993 (14 years ago this month): The mother of murdered sailor Allen Schindler speaks at the March on Washington.

The murder of gay sailor Allen Schindler in October 1992 contributed to a national debate about LGBT people in the military that remains unresolved to this day.

Schindler was born in December 1969 and grew up in Chicago Heights, Illinois. A mediocre student, he joined the Navy right out of high school to obtain GI Bill money to attend veterinary school. He was first stationed in San Diego, where he frequented gay clubs and found a boyfriend. In 1991, he fulfilled his dream of serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway, a ship with a relatively tolerant atmosphere. But after the Midway was decommissioned a year later, he was reassigned to the USS Belleau Wood, which had a reputation for a rough and rowdy crew.

Schindler and other sailors suspected of being gay were routinely called "faggots" and shoved as they walked the ship's halls. One night in September 1992, as the ship was en route from San Diego to Sasebo, Japan, Schindler, a radioman, broadcast an unauthorized message, "2-Q-T-2-B-S-T-R-8" ("too cute to be straight"), which led to a monthlong disciplinary confinement. Soon thereafter, he admitted to commanding officers that he was gay. Though aware that the disclosure would likely lead to his discharge, Schindler nevertheless felt a sense of relief: "If you can't be yourself, then who are you?" he wrote in his diary.

As word spread that Schindler was gay and discharge proceedings were under way, the abuse increased. "It scares me a little," he wrote. "You never know who would want to injure me or cease my existence." By late October, the Belleau Wood had reached Sasebo and Schindler's confinement had ended. He began frequenting local bars, where he met a group of gay American entertainers, including dancer Eric Underwood, whom he told about the harassment.

On the night of October 27, after spending the evening drinking, two of Schindler's shipmates, Terry Helvey and Charles Vins, followed him into a public bathroom in a park near the base. Helvey began to beat and kick Schindler, with Vins also joining in; Helvey finished off the attack by stomping on Schindler's throat. As the assailants fled, witnesses arriving on the scene summoned the Shore Patrol, and medics tried to revive Schindler without success. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy reported that Schindler's injuries were "similar to a high-speed auto accident or a low-speed aircraft accident." His face was beaten so badly that his mother could only identify him by tattoos on his arms.

Helvey and Vins were identified by witnesses and arrested the next morning. As Helvey was being led away, he told a shipmate, "The bastard deserved it." Vins received a quick court-martial and was sentenced to just four months in exchange for testimony against Helvey.

The incident received little press coverage until Underwood and his associates wrote a letter to several publications exposing the anti-gay harassment Schindler had faced. The military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes printed the letter, and a reporter from the paper investigated the story. But the Navy tried to cover up the nature of the killing, going so far as to leak a rumor that Schindler and Helvey were gay lovers who had had a falling out.

Gay activists raised a furor over the murder, at a time when the issue of gays in the military was high on the national agenda due to Bill Clinton's campaign promise to lift the ban on LGBT service members. Michael Petrelis of Queer Nation – who vowed to make Schindler the "gay Rodney King" – organized a press conference at the Pentagon in December. Friends and supporters held a memorial in San Diego, while the Human Rights Campaign flew Schindler's mother, Dorothy Hajdys, to Washington to speak at a candlelight vigil.

Hajdys, a fundamentalist Christian who initially had trouble accepting that her son was gay, became an unlikely activist for LGBT civil rights. "If you would have told me I would have been at the March on Washington standing before a million people and being seen all over the world, I would have told you you were nuts," she later told an interviewer.

Schindler's killing remained front-page news throughout the spring of 1993. In May, Helvey was court-martialed in Japan, with his defense focusing on his abusive childhood and use of steroids. He admitted the crime, first claiming that Schindler had made a sexual advance in the bathroom and later saying that he found homosexuals "disgusting, sick, and scary." The incident never would have happened, he added, if gays weren't allowed to join the military. Helvey pleaded guilty to murder with intent to commit great bodily harm, thereby avoiding the death penalty for premeditated murder. In 2002, Hajdys and gay activists successfully opposed his parole, and he continues to serve a life sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Schindler put an individual face on the debate about gays in the military, with both sides pointing to his murder to justify their positions. In November 1993, President Clinton signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy into law, after Congress and the Pentagon opposed lifting the ban. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, more than 10,000 men and women have been discharged from the armed forces since the policy went into effect.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

For further information

Lifetime Network. 1997. Any Mother's Son (film).

Brown, Chip. 1993. "An Accidental Martyr." Esquire (December).

Green, Jesse. 1993. "What the Navy Taught Allen Schindler's Mother." New York Times Magazine (September 12).