Soldier’s Girl – The Reality
Special Note: If you are here primarily out of empathy for the tragedy portrayed in “Soldier’s Girl“, please consider a donation to SLDN.org. Please, out of respect for my need to move forward, do not contact me about Barry’s murder or the movie, either here, via social networking sites or in person.
On the night of July 4th, 1999, my boyfriend Army PFC Barry Winchell was brutally beaten to death in his sleep in a murder committed by two fellow soldiers.
I created this website as an information resource on my career, a forum for some of my creative hobbies, and also as a forum for women in my situation to exchange information and inspiration with each other. The tone is usually lighthearted, and I deliberated a long time over including information about the following events. I do not have a lot of personal photos and writing about Barry Winchell on my site because I’d rather keep the private things private. But the story of my life, past, present or future, is just not complete without talking a little about our story together.
In 1999 I met a soldier named Barry Winchell. I was a showgirl, he was in the Army, both of us at defining moments in our lives, and we fell into an intense, private relationship almost immediately. We found something in each other that made us happy and kept the dark side of existence a little farther away from our demanding, difficult lives. We only had a short time together, enough time to begin to hope that things could progress and life could change from loneliness to love, and then he was murdered by two fellow soldiers. Stolen away from his family, friends and me. You never know when life is going to change, or to end.
The time after the murder was difficult for everyone. A woman in my situation does not find love easily, and when it’s gone only memories and scars remain.
Media scoured the wreckage for sensationalism while carefully stepping around the shattered truth that could have been the only, too-dearly-priced good to come up from anything. Even more terrible was the suffering of an innocent family. My fear at reaching out to them was an additional source of misery. Finding peace with myself has been the longest battle, and the person I was at that time did not feel ready to be looked at, analyzed and judged by the world.
I am a person who agonizes for weeks over a misspoken comment, much less the ruin of lives. The murder was not my fault, but guilt will always burn in my memory behind the clean, beautiful moments of love I will never forget.
I had competed in, and won, the Tennessee Entertainer of the Year pageant on the night of the 4th, and Barry had duty on base that night (to watch the company mascot dog) so we had not been together that evening. I heard about the attack on the television news the next morning. I was confused and devastated, and alongside those emotions I was even more acutely aware of the everpresent knowledge that as a trans woman I would not be welcome anywhere in any public part of his life, including the hospital. As a transwoman, making myself known or attempting to be any part of the recovery I hoped for at the time would destroy Barry’s career. At that moment, knowing only that he was grievously injured, I felt terrified that it had something to do with our relationship and yet I couldn’t make myself known and didn’t know if I should attempt to be there by his side. I felt paralyzed. Trapped. I called the hospital, looking for news, but was not given any information. I went to stay at a good friend’s house, confined to his couch wrapped in blankets, alternating a search for news with fitful sleep. Soon thereafter, I heard that Barry had died. There was to be a memorial. I agonized over my appearance, trying to put together some presentation of my early-in-transition self that would not shame his memory, then drove the hour to be base, but was afraid to attempt passage of the gate guards and did not go in.
I never saw Barry again, and after the events on the night of July 4th the real-life comfort of our relationship had evaporated, leaving behind a long and ongoing struggle for unsatisfying justice and some modicum of understanding in the wake of massive public gawking.
At some point, lawyers and groups such as Rhonda White and Lambda Legal and SLDN came to help me and work on the brewing legal case. Honestly, it was a tumultuous time and I struggle nowadays with memory and concentration issues that I alternately attribute to stress, chemicals from my time in the first Gulf War and brain chemistry. Details such as dates, times, places and names are more and more difficult to pin down for me, whether in relation to this or even simple basics like the birthdays of my family members. I apologize if I get some details wrong here, but the basic events are all sound.
Media began picking up the story, from those first morning news reports to ongoing local coverage, and print media that expanded from Southern papers all the way to the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and more. I began turning down requests to speak to disreputable coverage such as daytime talk shows and tabloids. I have archived as much of the media coverage as I could here, if you are interested. At that time, my full time job was being a headlining showgirl at The Connection, a huge theatre and nightclub, and media began stalking me at work. I’ll never forget getting the unsympathetic message that the owners were “not happy” about me “bringing all the negative attention to the club”. This was the beginning of an unexpected contingent of negative reaction from within the GLBT community alongside the expected negativity of outsiders. Seeing how our relationship was already being written about as a “gay relationship”, and I was being described as Barry’s “gay male lover”, I was eager to present the truth about us as a happy boy/girl couple to the writers I deemed respectable. I was eager to assert that Barry was attracted to women, and show that I was not the media’s common stereotype of a transsexual — a street-dwelling prostitute, a linebacker in a dress or a guilty husband caught in his wife’s knickers.
During these weeks and months after the murder, as preparations for the legal case unfolded, my life became about getting justice and setting the record straight on who Barry and I were, and what our relationship was. While I was fortunate enough to have the support of most of the GLBT community (none was asked or expected from the larger hetero community at that time, though it did come after the movie aired), I faced some very hurtful and confusing attacks from within the GLBT community during this time of greatest need, as they watched me navigate the unprecedented amount of attention from national media sources. Some few individuals in the GLBT community at the time viewed the media attention with a shocking, soulless jealousy — one person even commented on my pursuit by the local news with “Girl, you’re so lucky!”, to which I responded with utter disgust, and which I can only hope was an utterly thoughtless observation on the attention disconnected from the tragedy generating it. My appearance and willingness to talk to my carefully selected interviewers was also viewed with a critical eye by some. Being early on in my transition at the time, I was still struggling with makeup, needing to apply it heavily to cover my not-yet-feminized features and thus appearing (to some) overly “showy” or “sexy” because of it. The only affordable clothes that fit my larger-than-average and rapidly changing frame were stretchy and thus form-fitting. My limited finances forced me to overlap my exotic showgirl shoes and accessories wherever possible into my daily wear. All of this led to some few criticizing me for doing myself up in an inappropriately sexy or flashy manner for the inevitable press coverage. Others objected to me providing images of myself at work, on stage, as being inappropriately sexy. To me, it was important that people understood that Barry was a heterosexual man attracted to women, and showing some images of me as I appeared when he first fell for me onstage was a means of doing that. In any case, I can only hope that no other person ever has to work so hard to justify their relationship with someone else, in the wake of a murder, to a public with most every wrong idea about them possible.
During the media aftermath, one journalist in particular stands out as someone who had a major part in getting Barry’s story out: David France. Although some other sources covered it, I believe without David’s writing, Barry’s story would never have captured the world’s hearts and minds the way it did.
David wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine called “An Inconvenient Woman” that
was my favorite out of all the published accounts. He went on to become a personal friend in the following years.
Unfortunately, at the time of publication there was a problem with quote attribution, so the instant the story was published, the legal and activist groups who were helping me in Nashville needed to reassert their views. That very morning, they drafted several letters which I was urged to sign denouncing David’s article. While I did agree with them about the attribution (an error on the fact-checker’s part, not David’s), as a whole I loved the article. But the activist groups had been so caring, available and hard-working to ensure that the Army did the right thing during the trial, so Iin my especially vulnerable state I found myself torn between two factions that I needed and cared about. There was a real atmosphere of tension and stress around me and the trial, and everyone’s reactions to everything were quite dramatic.
Most unfortunately, I did not consider that that tone of these letters denounced and discredited David’s entire piece, so when I signed them in the rushed flurry of outrage and emotion surrounding the ongoing court case, I was suddenly on record in a multitude of press releases saying David’s article was completely inaccurate and a horrible slander. It was a terrible situation within a terrible situation: torn between two earnest, talented groups trying to fight injustice. If I had it to do over again, I would have carefully read the papers I signed and perhaps drafted my own statement, simply saying I agreed about the misattribution, and left my involvement at that.
But one can only “change one’s story” so many times before losing credibility, a hard lesson I learned in terms of dealing with the media. The last word is, I love and appreciate the groups who helped me, both personally and professionally. I also love and appreciate David and his sensitive, insightful and world-changing article. Everyone was trying to do the right thing, including me, but it just got a little complicated. You can read David France’s New York Times Article if you like.
A long while later, Showtime approached me about consulting on a film telling the story of our relationship. I was reluctant, worried about the “propriety” of becoming involved with an entertainment project. I spoke with everyone personally, did my research, and two years later I joined the project because I was convinced of the sincerity of everyone involved.
I offered to work with the team for no money, and I turned down an onscreen appearance in the film. My decision was made with the full knowledge that dramatization of the story, and my involvement, would still be seen as improper by some.
I was not unaware of the possibility that my being an actress and entertainer could throw a doubtful light on my intentions. But after two years of consideration, and after hearing so many responses from people touched and educated by the story, I decided that my involvement was a duty. I have tried to fulfill that duty with as much class and comportment as possible, and can only hope time will bear this out.
This movie, Soldier’s Girl, is about our relationship and his subsequent murder. The subject matter is incredibly sensitive for me, and I generally only discuss it with my closest friends and the people involved in our lives. Opening up to the makers of the film was cathartic, and their telling of the story is an absolutely beautiful tribute to the wonderful man Barry Winchell was. I am very proud of the team I got to know and the finished film.
There’s really not much more that I want to say here about these events directly, now that it has been more than ten years since Barry’s murder. Only those directly involved can understand this at its core level. But people’s interest remains high as a result of the movie “Soldier’s Girl” and other commentary on the story, so I have addressed some things here especially relating to the ways through which people have become familiar with the story. If I seem to talk about the movie and press coverage more than my personal experiences surrounding these events, it is only because I choose to keep many of my most personal thoughts private.
Know that the person who I consider the mastermind of Barry’s murder, Justin Fisher, has completed the prison term deemed appropriate by the government and now walks as a free man. Former President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama’s promises to dismantle the codified culture of homophobia in the US military that contributed to Barry’s murder stand unfulfilled.
|Special Note: If you happen to read this and then ever chance to meet me in person, I’ll take this moment to ask you to please consider the situation and moment before bringing up Barry’s murder. At events relating to activism or somehow relating to the film, or if we are close personal friends, I understand and expect it to come up at some point. Sometimes I need to talk about it myself, still. But at light parties, clubs and social events, sometimes people I’ve just met bring up his murder as a light conversational topic, either directly or through mentioning the movie and then asking me questions about the real-life experience. I don’t think these people realize that “Soldier’s Girl” was not just a movie, it was a portrayal of a real, personal, painful event which is not something I like to discuss lightly over dinner, in a shopping mall or at a party. If you happen to have brought it up to me in person in a lighthearted manner before reading this page, don’t feel bad or worry about it — many people were touched by the film and wanted to share that with me, so I do understand. But now that it has been almost 10 years, if I can head off some of the awkward moments, I would like to do so. Thank you!|