“Airman Richardson, I am here to escort you to the commander’s office.”
Long before Todd Richardson, the Pinellas County Regional Coordinator at Equality Florida, was an openly gay man living in Tampa Bay, he was an airman in the United States Air Force. He was also in the closet.
“Escort me?” Richardson said to the Technical Sergeant who had just walked into his office. The sergeant’s tone let Richardson know that he was in trouble, but for the life of him he could not figure out what he had done. Richardson’s performance reports showed he was an exemplary airman with an impeccable record. As they approached the commander’s office door, Richardson noticed several airmen standing in front of the office. Richardson suspected he knew what they were there for, probably the same reason he was there.
Richardson walked into his commander’s office, the same man he directly worked for, and stood in front of his desk.
“Todd, you know I like you,” his commander said to him. Richardson replied, “Yes sir, I like you too and I have loved working for you. I feel like I might be in some kind of trouble today.”
“Yeah you sort of are,” his commander said. “Airman Crawford has signed a sworn statement against you saying that you and him have engaged in homosexual relations.”
The United States military has a long history of discriminating against LGBTQ servicemembers. As far back as 1778, when Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin was dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality under the order from General George Washington.
In 1951 all branches of the military adopted the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, which is still used today. Article 125 of that conduct code made the act of sodomy among military personnel illegal. This officially allowed servicemembers to be removed from duty for no other reason except that they were gay.
The biggest change to this policy came in 1993 when President Bill Clinton, who had run on the promise to let LGBTQ military personnel serve openly in his 1992 campaign, signed into law the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This policy was seen as a compromise. It prevented commanders from inquiring about a military person’s sexual orientation, but it still forced servicemembers to stay in the closest and deny who they are. This policy didn’t help Richardson at all. When he met with his commander, it was the Summer of 1985.
Richardson was fresh out of high school in 1981. He wasn’t ready for college, and his parents didn’t really have the money to send him. His older brother Steve had just gotten out of the Air Force and suggested that Richardson enlist.
“He helped me so I could get a guaranteed job, and it was a chance to learn good skills and see the world while serving my country and so I went through the process,” Richardson says.
Richardson completed basic training and technical training school, then was off to see the world spending time both stateside in Virginia and overseas in Germany. He also managed to garner near perfect performance evaluations and even obtained a position with top secret security clearance working for a four star general. With less than a year to go in his initial enlistment, Richardson was sent to Texas.
“I was in a TV room in the dorms when a really good looking guy named Craig Crawford came up to me,” Richardson remembers. “He said to me, ‘You must be new here,’ and I told him that I was and he invited me upstairs to play cards and to meet some of the other guys.”
Richardson went upstairs and among the four airmen playing cards was Greg Crawford, Craig’s twin brother. Craig and Greg Crawford were both gay, and not shy about discussing it.
“They were very out. Both of them,” Richardson says. “Both of them weren’t afraid to talk about it, they were very flamboyant. They attended gay clubs and to me that was just wow, to go out that far on a limb.” Richardson ended up having sex with Craig Crawford.
Richardson had less than two months to go from getting out of the military. After his four-year enlistment he decided to take his skills, and his top secret security clearance, and use them to build a career in the civilian world.
“I had a job lined up with General Services Administration in Washington but they didn’t want me because of my computer experience, they wanted me because of my top secret security clearance,” Richardson says. “I got the job, my aunt and uncle owned an 85-acre farm in Maryland and the plan was that I would live on the farm and figure out what I was going to do and potentially move into the city at some point.”
Those plans changed the moment Richardson stood before his commander and found out that Craig Crawford had outted him.
“My heart just started beating out of my chest,” Richardson says. “I wasn’t ready to come out, I wasn’t even in that mode of thinking I was going to come out. I wasn’t there, and here I was having to face something I hadn’t even faced myself.”
Richardson was immediately taken into custody by the Office of Special Investigation, or OSI, the Air Force’s equivalent to the FBI.
“They took me to another place on base,” Richardson says. “It was like something out of a movie. I was just sitting there at a table answering questions. They questioned me about everything I did with Craig and the fact that he had signed that statement against me saying that I had sex with him. Then they went into questioning my patriotism. I joined the Air Force to serve my country, learn a skill and travel, so for them to question that. It was hurtful.”
Richardson was one of tens of thousands of military personnel who were removed from service because of their sexual orientation. Even after the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” more than 13,000 servicemembers were discharged for being LGB before the policy was eventually found to be unconstitutional in 2010.
Many servicemembers suspected of being LGB during the DADT era were subject to open investigations by military policing agencies and were under constant surveillance. While the policy stated that members of the military could not ask each other about their sexuality, this did not stop harassment against those servicemembers suspected of being gay.
Several studies have been conducted on the impact to LGB servicemembers during the lifespan of DADT. They all show higher numbers of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), problems with alcohol and depression among LGB military members as compared to their heterosexual counterparts. One study by the University of Montana in 2013 found that nearly 15 percent of LGB servicemembers have attempted suicide compared to 0.0003 percent for all servicemembers.
After hours of questioning, Richardson admitted to OSI that he was gay. The Air Force immediately removed him from his job and, while he awaited his discharge from the Air Force, he was given a push broom and forced to sweep the parking lot of the very headquarters building he worked in just a week prior.
A week into sweeping the parking lot for hours every day in Texas’ summer heat, Richardson had a visitor approach him.
“I’m sweeping the parking lot and I hear ‘Hey faggot’ from behind me,” Richardson says. “I still had the broom in my hand and boom, I was hit and he broke my nose. I fell to the ground and chipped both of my elbows. I have a deviated septum that was caused because of it.”
Richardson didn’t get a good look at the guy as he was sucker punched.
“I could remember that his hat was tipped down and I know he had light skin and freckles,” Richardson says. “That was all I could remember because it happened so fast. I went down and it was the asphalt burning my arm, because I didn’t have my long sleeve shirt on, that made me get up after being punched. He was gone.”
Richardson didn’t report the assault. As he saw it now they were the enemy and he had no reason to think that they would help him.
“I had been punched in the face before,” he says. “I knew I would be fine, plus that really wasn’t the worst of what was about to happen.”
Two weeks after being pulled into his commander’s office and outted, Richardson received a call from the government job that was waiting for him on the other side. They were retracting the job offer. Along with the discharge, the Air Force pulled Richardson’s security clearance and with no clearance there was no job.
“How was I going to explain this to my family that I was coming back to Florida, not going to Mom’s sister’s house in D.C. and the job that I was so excited about all of a sudden vanished. I couldn’t explain the gay thing because they didn’t even know I was gay,” Richardson says. “That was the breaking point for me. I went into the Base Exchange and I bought three bottles of the sleeping pill Sominex and a bottle of Jack Daniels, and I didn’t know if it was going to kill me but I knew I was going to try.”
Richardson went back to his dorm room, it was a Friday night, and he expected he would have the entire evening alone.
“Two of my Air Force buddies that I was stationed with in Germany showed up to my dorm room unexpectedly asking if I wanted to go out for a drink,” Richardson recalls, holding back tears. “And they didn’t know it then, but they know it now, that they saved my life that night. Because I would’ve done it, there is no question in my mind.”
Richardson says those two friends —John Wright and Tim Stacy — know now how much they played a part in saving his life.
“They were the first two straight men to tell me that it was okay to be gay,” Richardson says.
Richardson was fortunate enough throughout that process to have a woman in the discharge office who saw his exemplary record and was not going to let him be removed with anything other than an honorable discharge. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many LGB servicemembers discharged from the military.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been trying to rectify the U.S. military’s past sins by forming and implementing many programs geared toward LGBTQ veterans and their families.
After President Barack Obama forced the repeal of DADT in 2010, VA hospitals and clinics begun hiring program managers, social workers and mental health professionals specifically trained to address LGBTQ issues with veterans. The VA’s, including those in Orlando and Tampa Bay, regularly attend LGBTQ Pride events. Some are even holding LGBTQ-focused fairs and special events at their own facilities.
Watermark reached out to both the Orlando and Tampa Bay Veterans Affairs LGBTQ liaisons for this story, and while they were not able to obtain the clearance to speak directly with us, they did send over information and websites dedicated to LGBTQ veterans.
Along with the repeal of DADT, the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S. in 2015 carried over to LGBTQ vets and their spouses as well. Benefits such as paying out life insurance policies and transferring educational benefits, which are limited to “next of kin,” are now open to all spouses and children, regardless of sexual orientation. Same-sex spouses can also now participate in the presentation of the flag after the death of their partner.
While many of these benefits will automatically apply for LGBTQ veterans, some are based on the status of the individual’s discharge, and even with the removal of DADT, there was no mass change to LGBTQ veteran’s records who were discharged dishonorably under that policy.
According to OutServe-SLDN.org, a legal organization dedicated to providing legal services and assistance to veterans affected by DADT, even if you were removed with an honorable discharge, you may still have issues you need address.
“Even if their discharges were Honorable, service members discharged under DADT or the prior policy have two notations on their discharge paperwork that they might find troubling,” OutServe-SLDN writes. “The negative reentry code marks the veteran as someone who the military has made a judgment is not fit for military service and the narrative reason for discharge summarizes the basis of a veteran’s separation from the military. In the case of a DADT discharge, the narrative reason is often ‘Homosexual Conduct,’ ‘Homosexual Admission’ or even just ‘Homosexual.’”
While some of these issues can be time consuming to fix, a negative mark on the discharge paperwork can affect a veteran when applying for a job or VA benefit services. Veterans looking to correct their discharges should start with their local VA benefits office or visit OutServe-SLDN.org. LGBTQ veterans can also visit benefits.va.gov to find out which benefits they qualify for and how to obtain them.
Richardson has built an great life for himself since those low days after being discharged. He is an active voice for change and fights for LGBTQ rights with Equality Florida in the Tampa Bay area, and across the state. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about what might have been if he had been allowed to serve openly and without judgment.
“I had four good years in the Air Force,” Richardson says. “Would I have stayed there? I don’t know, but they never gave me the opportunity to figure that out. They took that away from me because I was gay.”
Richardson is currently working with the VA, and has reached out to Congressman Charlie Crist, in order to have his military records released publicly.
“I want everyone to see what they said and what they did while they interrogated me for hours on end,” Richardson says. “They humiliated me and I want everyone to see why.”