Lovers in a dangerous time

In the groundbreaking film Soldier’s Girl, actors Troy Garity and Lee Pace take on the real-life romance between Pfc. Barry Winchell and transgendered entertainer Calpernia Addams—an affair that led to Winchell’s brutal murder

BY Michael Rowe

May 13 2003 12:00 AM ET

“Perfect
parents we weren’t,” Jane Fonda concedes on
the phone from Atlanta, “but we lived our
politics. It wasn’t lip service, and he grew up
with that. And it wasn’t always pretty, as I’m
sure he told you. It wasn’t easy as a kid to
grow up [in a political environment], and he saw up
close the battle of gender issues. You can trace any issue
back to hierarchy, patriarchy, and power. It’s
why gay people, men and women, are so vulnerable, now
more than ever. They challenge the most fundamental
structures of our society. For me, Troy is the perfect man:
He’s truly androgynous.” Early on,
Garity, who is straight, approached his mother for
advice on the possible impact of playing a potentially
controversial role.

“He called
me up and said, ‘Mom, do you think it could hurt my
career to kiss a guy on the lips?’ and I
started listing all the actors who’d done it,
and I said no,” Fonda recalls. “As a mother,
it wasn’t the love scenes that were hard for
me; it was the beating.”

“I had
heard about the Barry Winchell incident,” Garity
says, “but I had filed it away with all the
other hate crimes I hear about day in and day out. It
didn’t really have much gravity in my belly, because
I did’t assume it had anything to do with me.
And now I see how gravely wrong I was. I see that the
‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy
is responsible for the death of Barry Winchell and the
ruination of the lives of those two young men who are
in prison forever, and it moves beyond the military
compound. The policy is something that exists in our
homes and our schools. The preposterous notion that
silence is going to resolve conflict is absolutely
crazy.”

Nyswaner points
out that like all great tragedies, the story being told
in Soldier’s Girl requires a complex range
of interconnected characters. Some of his most revealing
discoveries in his research were not about Winchell
and Addams but about the killers, Nyswaner says:
“In my research, I found that Justin and Calvin had
very troubled pasts and had been dumped in the Army as
a last resort.” Nyswaner spoke to several
sergeants—the officers directly responsible for
enlisted men—who told him off the record that
“there are troubled people in the military who
are sent there as a last resort when schools,
churches, and families fail to help kids,” he says.

“One of
the reasons the movie is so disturbing is that Shawn Hatosy
is so good in the role of Justin Fisher,”
Nyswaner says. “He’s Iago. He saw that
aspect of the script and ran with it. You never know if
Justin is being completely manipulative or if
occasionally some humanity leaks through. For an actor
to bring that complexity to a ‘villainous’
role is a great contribution.”

Fisher’s
obsession with Barry Winchell struck many involved in the
investigation as excessive. Given Fisher’s own
experiences within Nashville’s gay nightlife,
he appears to fit the profile of a self-loathing gay
basher: a straight-identified man struggling with his
own sublimated homosexual desires who in a rage annihilates
the person who stirred that same-sex attraction.

Whatever
Fisher’s sexuality, Winchell’s will never be
known. He related to Calpernia as a woman but,
according to Addams, engaged with all of her
physicality.

“Unfortunately, he died too young,” Garity
says. “Sexuality evolves with us. Part of our
journey on this planet is the discovery of our sexuality.
He was attracted to this female figure and was ultimately
able to fall in love. We didn’t have the luxury
of asking him questions. He never complained to
Calpernia or his parents. He had a slogan: ‘Suck it
up and move on.’”

Likewise,
Nyswaner feels the film will find its audience, gay or
straight, and that everyone who watches it will bring
something of their own to the table. “I write
what interests me,” he says, “and what
interested me in this story had to do with universal themes:
people who love unconditionally and people, like
Justin Fisher, who are tortured by repression. These
themes apply to all human beings.”

“What I
want people to understand about this film is that the story
goes beyond gay rights,” Garity says
thoughtfully. “This goes into the very core and
makeup of our society as a whole. This story is about people
not being able to express themselves and being
punished for difference. And there is no one in our
elected offices who is willing to fucking sit down and
deal with issues of difference. Now we have a situation
where we’re at war, and young men like Barry
Winchell are out fighting [in Iraq] not for any
concept of ‘liberation’ but for the policies
of the corrupt 1% who run this country. We have the
greatest soldiers in the world, and [many of them] are
constantly being abused and betrayed by their leaders.
I can’t expect my country to go liberate another
country when we’re unable to liberate
ourselves.”

Nyswaner also
believes the military is betraying its own members.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t
tell’ played an incalculable role in Barry
Winchell’s death,” he says, steel in his
voice. “The people who crafted it have a lot to
answer for. It’s a heinous policy and one of the
great political failings of the Clinton
administration. The implied message is one that all gay
people have had to live with our whole lives:
‘We’ll pretend you’re OK as long
as you don’t tell us who you are.’”

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