Gay Veteran, 91, Seeks to Upgrade His "Undesirable" Discharge

Nov 25, 2016

It’s been nearly 70 years, and it’s still painful for Ed Spires to tell the story.

In 1948, Spires received an undesirable discharge from the U.S. Air Force because he was gay. Now the 91-year old from Norwalk is suing to have his status upgraded to honorable.

“The trouble started, really started, around Halloween of ’48,” Spires said.

He was an assistant chaplain at a base in Texas when he went to a costume party dressed as a character from pop culture.

“That new Oxydol Sparkle, which was a soap ad,” he said.

The Air Force called it drag. A higher-up called Spires into his office.

“We had heard rumors on the base that the commanding officer had charged his people with cleaning up the base of the homosexuals. I guess we had created quite a stir,” he said.

Spires was one of thousands of service members who’ve been discharged for being gay since the end of World War II. He didn’t want his parents to find out why.

So that New Year’s Eve, he showed his papers to a court reporter friend, and asked his advice.

“He read it, and he said, ‘I advise you to burn this. Burn the discharge, and everything connected with it, so you can’t be caught with any evidence.’ We stood by the fireplace and threw the papers in. Watched it all burn,” Spires said.

The Air Force’s copies of his files would later burn, too. They were lost in a fire in 1973.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2010, and many gay service members have gotten their discharges upgraded. With no papers to prove his story, Spires isn’t one of them.

David Rosenberg is Spires’ partner of more than 50 years.

“It seems like an uncompleted part of his life, and I want him to feel that he deserves credit for what he did. I mean, we’ve been together all these years, we’ve built a good life for ourselves, and this is part of it,” Rosenberg said.

With an honorable discharge, Spires could have access to medical benefits from the VA, and he could receive a military burial. He said the lawsuit is much more personal than that though.

“I was a nobody to them, and they treated me that way, and they threw me out that way. I want to prove the Air Force wrong,” Spires said.

Spires is being represented by the Yale Law Clinic. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the case could help thousands of other veterans who can’t get their discharges upgraded for similar reasons.

An Air Force spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

This report was originally published by WSHU Public Radio.