Distress Signals

My posthumous friendship with a civil rights hero

Back to School

I met Lawrence Gibson at a turning point in my life. After landing my first literary agent and riding the high of a hit play I had abandoned a relationship and a lucrative day job to devote myself full-time to being a starving playwright. I crashed temporarily on the couch of my generous Uncle Joey and, despite an MFA, sought out only part-time office jobs. I soon found myself with a receptionist gig at one of New York City’s many prominent private schools.

At first the administers were baffled by my application; surely, they thought, I was using the job opening as an entrée into teaching there, but I assured them I had no interest. I just wanted to leave at noon every day. They gave me the job on a trial basis. On my third day I met someone who seemed all but invisible to me, and who would, due to my own self-absorption, stop seeming that way to me only after he died. Then his spirit reached across from the netherworld, grabbed my collar and shook me into noticing him. He also enlisted my help.

One of the pain-in-the-ass parts of working in a primary school is that lunchtime comes at an ungodly early hour. I daily found myself required to join teachers and a zillion affluent, screaming kids in the school cafeteria for a nearly gourmet meal I didn’t want. On my third day I happened to sit next to one Lawrence Gibson, the 70-year-old school librarian. He was a slight man, fastidious, with thinning white hair and a bald pate. He wore button-down sweaters and bow ties. He spoke softly, sometimes almost in a whisper. He said he was a fan of my play and was thrilled to meet me. I smiled and thanked him, detected a slight Appalachian accent and asked where he was from.

“Virginia.”

“No way. Where?”

“It’s an obscure small town, you wouldn’t have heard of it.” He looked away.

“Try me,” I quipped. “I’m a proud Virginian with roots stretching back to 1789.”

“The nearest place you might have heard of is Roanoke,” he said sheepishly.

“I’m from Roanoke. Which town are you from?”

He looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I wasn’t getting yet that he most decidedly did not want to talk about his origins.

“It’s a small place in Bedford County.”

I laughed at the coincidence. “All of my relatives are from Bedford County. It’s practically my ancestral homeland. Where you from, man?”

He finally spit it out. “Alta Vista.”

Lawrence Gibson (right) with his father and brother, ca. 1944

“Dude, I spent three years living in Lynch Station. We used to drive to Alta Vista every weekend to go to Roses department store.” I’m beaming with nostalgia and — only then do I realize — he’s scowling.

He shook his head. “I don’t go there anymore. It’s a terrible place. I’ll never go back.”

My smile faded. Awkward silence. He went on eating. I dropped the subject. In a moment he brought up Shakespeare and we talked about Macbeth instead. Lawrence and I remained cordial after that but I sensed that he saw me as a ghost from a painful past.

Eventually I was called out of town to — where else? — Virginia, to sit in on final rehearsals for a play I had been commissioned to write, Medicine, Man. I helped my actor friend Steve Kelly take over my desk job. I also urged him to befriend Lawrence, knowing of their shared love of Shakespeare. Sure enough their friendship blossomed. After I returned to part-time university teaching I continued writing articles for the school’s publications part-time, largely as a telecommuter. I rarely saw Lawrence after that, but through Steve I occasionally learned a little more about him in drips and drabs. Lawrence had been a history teacher and school principal before he became a librarian. He lived alone in a condo on Atlantic Avenue, he struggled with depression and alcoholism, and he had been disowned years ago by his family for being gay.

No wonder he hadn’t wanted to talk about rural southwestern Virginia. Steve meanwhile had taken Lawrence under his wing, visiting him regularly, meeting him for dinner, helping out with chores around his apartment. One fateful year the school’s administration decided not to renew Lawrence’s annual contract and to replace him with a younger librarian more in tune with the latest technological advances in library science. Lawrence sued for age discrimination and walked away with a hefty sum. Had they known what I know now, they’d have known not to poke this mild-mannered bookworm. He was a self-taught expert at the law who could come out swinging like Clarence Darrow when necessary.

Despite his victory, Lawrence was in no position to enjoy the windfall. He was old and falling apart. He knew that death was coming for him soon. He hastily finished a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about his childhood and family, Escaping Dark Places, and published it through a small vanity press. He was desperate to get the albatross from around his neck before he passed away. Steve had posed for the cover and his then-girlfriend, photographer Leslie Barbaro, had snapped the photo. With the book out of the way, Lawrence’s final piece of business was drawing up a will.

Death and a Discovery

Gibson died of natural causes in 2012 at the age of 78. With no offspring and no close family he named Steve his sole heir and executor, leaving him the money, the apartment and everything in it along with all rights to his writings.

In his spare time, Steve began the arduous process of sifting through Lawrence’s densely packed apartment deciding what to keep, what to throw out, what to donate. Two years into the daunting project he eagerly contacted me and told me he’d unearthed another book Lawrence had written, this one from the 1970s and from a major publisher. He was absolutely enthralled by it and wondered if I’d read it and tell him whether I thought it could make a good script. I was happy to do him the favor but wasn’t expecting much.

Get Off My Ship: Ensign Berg v. the US Navy knocked my socks off. It was Lawrence’s memoir about his lover, the artist and gay rights activist Vernon “Copy” Berg III. Holy smokes. This was the famed Copy Berg case, a major event in gay rights history. Lawrence had been Berg’s partner when Berg became, at Lawrence’s strong urging, the first officer to bring a legal challenge against the US military for anti-gay discrimination. It was the opening salvo in the long battle to allow openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces.

The uncorrected proof discovered in the bottom of a cardboard box.

The 1978 memoir, published by Avon Books (now HarperCollins), was so popular that it had undergone two printings before the rights reverted back to Gibson. It had made Berg, and to a lesser degree Gibson, into momentary celebrities. They dined with Mayor Edward I. Koch at Gracie Mansion, the case was covered in Time magazine, they were interviewed together on talk shows.

The book also contained the first publication of the Crittenden Report, a suppressed US Navy document prepared in 1957 which concluded that gays in the military posed no threat to morale, and that the number of homosexuals on active duty was so vast that to discharge them all would cripple the fighting force. The damning report remained hidden until 1977 when Berg’s lawyers made discovery requests in preparing their case against the Navy. With pressure from then-Congressman Koch, the Department of Defense ordered the Navy to release the data after decades of maintaining that no such reports existed,

Suffice it to say, the memoir was a riveting read. Berg himself was at first true blue all the way and had never wanted to be outed. He had been an Eagle Scout raised in a conservative Christian family. As a child, his mother nicknamed him Copy because he was a carbon copy of his father, a Navy chaplain and Vietnam-era combat veteran. From a young age Copy was highly intelligent and artistically talented. As a teenager he had been accepted to the highly selective US Naval Academy at Annapolis in order to become an officer and pursue a long career in the Navy just like his dad.

Later, Copy and his father would turn against the Navy because of the appalling ploys perpetrated by Navy Intelligence in attempting to derail Berg, including alleged burglaries, vandalism of Lawrence and Copy’s car on the first morning of the hearing, illegal spying, and coercing a sailor who had served under Berg to give conflicting testimony that Berg had attempted to rape him.

This was a classic David and Goliath underdog story that lent itself easily to becoming a major motion picture or hit play. But in 1978, mainstream America wasn’t ready to take on a serious gay love story and was still 15 years away from the era of Angels in America, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Dallas Buyers Club and Stonewall. I immediately optioned the theatrical rights from Steve at my own expense and set about researching and writing a script.

Besides the source material in the book, Steve and I discovered a trove of artifacts in Lawrence’s apartment. He seemed to have held onto every little scrap from his Berg years including parts of Copy’s uniform and insignia, photos, love letters, postcards, and tape recordings of their media interviews. The May-December lovers (Lawrence was 16 years Copy’s senior) had also written short, confessional memoirs of themselves as closeted gay men growing up in their respective eras and places, and swapped them as an intimate way of sharing every private detail of themselves. I was also granted access to the New York Public Library’s Copy Berg Papers Archive and have pored over its contents, most of it donated by his family, starting from his childhood.

From all these artifacts I pieced together exactly why Lawrence had been so loathe to discuss his rural Virginia upbringing with me, especially in a school cafeteria surrounded by kids and coworkers when I’d first met him all those years ago. He had had an utterly brutal childhood. He was sexually molested at age nine by a teenage neighbor. His father would beat him if he caught him reading, and regularly found other reasons to physically assault both Lawrence and his mother.

As an adult in his early 20s Lawrence finally got up the nerve to tell his mother privately that he was gay. Heartbroken, she convinced him to try aversion therapy. He quietly committed himself to a psychiatric hospital in northern Virginia where doctors conducted electrotherapy and other treatments to try and cure him of his gayness. Only his mother was to know about it but the hospital made the mistake of also contacting his father to update him on Lawrence’s condition. He immediately called Lawrence at the hospital and urged him in all seriousness to commit suicide.

Any one of these traumas would have destroyed most young men but Lawrence got the hell out of Virginia, put himself through college, earning a teaching degree from Towson State College (now Towson University) in Maryland, and then made it into Princeton Theological Seminary. In his usual foolish denial he had hoped to become a clergyman. He had planned on a Doctor of Divinity degree but as his studies progressed he came to realize that the odds of his finding a church comfortable with an openly gay minister were slim.

He graduated in 1966 with an MA degree in Religious Education. He began substitute teaching and working part-time as a theatre director. In 1974 he landed a gig directing a play at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

There he met young Copy Berg, a 20-year-old overachieving college student who was cast in the play. Like Lawrence, Copy loved theatre and was well-versed in Shakespeare. Copy was a member of the Masqueraders drama club, the choir, the glee club, and was known for his painting and graphic design work for student publications, playbills and posters. The two struck up what was at first an innocent camaraderie. Despite their age difference the two eventually fell in love and began planning an impossible-seeming future together as a married couple. During a trip to New York they held a private wedding ceremony in Central Park.

The Little Rock

After graduation in 1974, Copy got his first assignment as a Naval officer aboard the USS Little Rock, a guided missile cruiser based at Gaeta, Italy. Copy rented an on-shore apartment in a villa. While privately owned and not formally connected to the military, the villa’s other tenants were almost entirely Navy personnel. Due to its proximity to the beach it was a popular hangout and 24-hour party spot. Foolishly, Copy set about bringing Lawrence to live with him. Lawrence, for his part, had joined a company in Virginia that placed GED and college prep teachers on military bases to tutor soldiers ending their tours of duty. Miraculously, Lawrence secured a placement as a teacher aboard the USS Little Rock and was soon bound for Italy.

If discretion was their goal, neither man seemed to be thinking clearly through the haze of their mad, blind love. Lawrence didn’t make it through his first day of teaching before he was intercepted by Naval Intelligence agents who had already been monitoring the situation and reading their personal correspondence. He was briefly interrogated and kicked off the ship.

Simultaneously, Copy was interrogated for hours by Naval Intelligence officers who demanded explicit details about their sex lives — where they did it, how they did it, who was on top, who liked oral, you name it. He was incorrectly told that he had no right to legal counsel during the interrogation and intimidated by senior officers into following their order to sign a typed confession. Less than a year into active duty and his Navy career was over.

Humiliated and worried about the devastating impact this news would have on his family, at first Copy planned to tow the line and quietly resign, but he finally decided to take Lawrence’s advice and fight back. The world had pushed Lawrence to the brink. Enough was enough. The hearing was held stateside at the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, the home state from which Lawrence thought he had escaped from permanently. For him it was like returning to the scene of a crime. The case was set to begin in the late autumn of 1975.

Their strategy was not to deny that Copy was gay but to argue that the Navy’s policies regarding discharge of homosexuals were vague, contradictory, discriminatory and applied inconsistently. The Navy at first had been unable to produce a single witness from aboard the Little Rock willing to testify against Berg. He was simply too well-liked. When Berg’s lawyers asked to fly several character witnesses from the Little Rock to testify on Berg’s behalf the Navy refused to grant permission. When Berg’s lawyers offered instead to fly to Italy at their own expense and take sworn statements from these sailors the Navy again refused to grant permission.

There was no way in hell that Copy Berg was going to win and he and Lawrence knew it. Still, they pressed on, making themselves overnight into well-known gay activists. Deprived of Navy character witnesses from aboard the Little Rock, Berg went for broke. Lawrence leaned hard on him to break out his biggest ace. There was one active duty, highly respected Navy man who knew Copy better than anyone, and that was his own father. Chaplain Vernon Berg II, a combat veteran, had been so repulsed when Copy was first forced out that he and Mrs. Berg initially attacked Lawrence as a predator who had turned their son gay. They urged Lawrence “to disappear” from Copy’s life, “somewhere in Texas, as far from our son as possible.” Lawrence balked and told them both off. Nonetheless, Chaplain Berg loved his son. In the end he was the only member of Copy’s family to speak out for Copy to the media, and the only family member to attend the hearing. He agreed to take the stand.

Chaplain Berg testified not only on his son’s character as an exceptionally honest, intelligent, patriotic man, but of his own knowledge of heroic gays in the ranks, including combat veterans and five-star generals. As a Navy chaplain he had heard many confessions over the years, he explained, but ethics prevented him from naming names. The revelation was a bombshell at the time and it doomed Chaplain Berg’s career. After the hearing he remained on active duty but the Navy twice passed him over for promotion to captain, forcing him to retire with the rank of commander.

A Pyrrhic Victory

The Navy’s kangaroo court ran rough-shod over Berg, and the five-member administrative hearing committee made its predetermined conclusion. Berg lost and would receive an Other Than Honorable discharge, but he had become a voice in the fight for gay rights. He and Lawrence kept up the struggle. The media attention surrounding them continued unabated and became an embarrassment to the Navy. A year after the hearing, the Secretary of the Navy directed that Copy be retroactively issued an Honorable Discharge. The following year, in 1978, the same year Lawrence’s damning memoir hit the bookstores, the US Court of Appeals ruled that Berg had been unfairly discharged. It did not reinstate him.

If English poet George Herbert was right about living well being the best revenge, then Copy Berg beat the Navy in spades. He lived comfortably off of speaking fees and directed much of his newfound fame toward his artwork consisting of watercolor paintings, pen & ink drawings and single-frame cartoons that he pitched to gay newspapers in Greenwich Village. As his fame increased, so did his newly found freedom to cut loose for the first time in New York City’s gay subculture.

By contrast Lawrence, who had been the real brains behind the operation, was now 45 years old to Copy’s hedonistic 28. Lawrence’s social justice work against the Navy was done, and he was eager to resume teaching and his planned life of quiet anonymity with his spouse. He and Copy split in 1979.

Lawrence lived alone for the rest of his life teaching, writing, struggling with bouts of depression, and mourning. When Copy died of AIDS-related illness in 1999, Lawrence was devastated not to be mentioned by Berg’s family in the New York Times obituary, regarding either the Navy case despite much detail about it, or about the fact that they hadbeen married.

Before Lawrence died 13 years later he talked to Steve of his plan to use some of the newly acquired funds from his age discrimination settlement to take a cruise to Italy. He wanted to see the site of his and Copy’s torpedoed future one last time. His failing health got the better of him and he never made the trip. In 2011 the US Congress voted to allow gays to serve openly in the United States military. Lawrence, sticking around long enough to see this victory in the battle he had launched all those years ago, died just 11 months later.

In September, 2015 an article appeared in the New York Times about elderly gay veterans who were dishonorably discharged years ago, who are now petitioning the US military to change their status to honorable before they die. Hilary Clinton, among other liberal politicians, was quick to jump on the bandwagon and support the idea. No one, however, has mentioned the patriotic heroism of Ensign Berg and Lawrence Gibson.

I would like to do what I can as a dramatist and essayist to change that and give credit to these unsung American heroes. They could have stood down, but instead they sacrificed their careers and personal lives to bring us all a step closer to realizing our nation’s ideals.

The author, with the help of Gibson’s estate, has placed the following sampling of news clippings online along with a recording of the Gibson and Berg’s WBAI radio interview.

Additional information is available in the Copy Berg Papers archive at the New York Public Library.

Any publishers interested in reprinting Gibson’s book are welcome to contact Jeffrey Stanley who will gladly put them in touch with Gibson’s estate.

Jeffrey Stanley currently holds the theatrical rights to the book. Any film or theatre producers who would like to know more about the project are also welcome to contact him.