By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A lawyer who doesn't care about money? No wonder the bar thinks he's certifiable.
Bobby Wightman-Cervantes' lineage of self-sacrifice doesn't stop with his English ancestors. His own father turned his back on his patrician New England family, giving up his inheritance and becoming a union organizer in the Rio Grande Valley. "He went to jail more than once," Wightman-Cervantes says. "Not because he did anything more than believe that workers had a right to organize...He was willing to give up everything for what he believed in."
The same goes for his mother, he says, who came from a privileged family in Nicaragua and, after she married, "went from having seven maids to being a maid." The family would eventually settle in New York City, where Wightman-Cervantes was raised as one of seven children. "We were all kind of stubborn," says his younger brother Charlie. "With seven kids in a house where you weren't allowed to hit, screaming to get your point across was pretty much the way to go." Charlie credits his mother with teaching her children to stand up for themselves. But no one took her words more to heart than Bobby. "He was willing to put himself at a loss just to prove a point," Charlie says. "Unless you can definitely prove him wrong, he will not stop."
Wightman-Cervantes fell in love with his Hispanic heritage, became fluent in Spanish, and often traveled to Nicaragua with his mother. Though studious at school, he was socially awkward, confused by his sexual feelings toward men. Few would dare come out in high school, particularly not Wightman-Cervantes, whose extended Hispanic family treated homosexuality as a crime.
After graduating from high school in 1976, he attended the University of Texas at El Paso. "Like every other gay person at that time," he says, "you knew something wasn't right, and you ran away from home."
Although a devout pacifist, he enlisted in the Army in 1981. It was just something Wightman-Cervantes felt duty-bound to do. "I see the military as a defense of flag and the Constitution," he says. "We can't demand the promise of the document and not be willing to die for it."
For more than a year in the Army, he was a soldier's soldier, standing at attention in the movie theater on base when the national anthem was played. But in June 1982, after he was transferred to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo for surveillance training, he grew ill and was hospitalized for a time with ulcerative colitis. He also became deeply depressed, but couldn't tell anyone why. "I thought I was betraying my government by lying that I wasn't gay," he says. "I couldn't tell them the truth without going to jail."
Although a previous Army mental exam found he had "no psychiatric disorder," his commanding officer at Goodfellow believed Wightman was malingering and ordered that he be evaluated at St. John's Hospital in San Angelo. The doctor who performed the evaluation, who Wightman-Cervantes says never examined him, offered this diagnosis in 1982: "It is my initial impression that the patient manifests a paranoid personality disorder." After reviewing his medical records, an Army psychiatrist determined that Wightman suffered from "atypical personality disorder (suspiciousness, self-dramatization, overreaction to minor events, angry outbursts, some grandiose ideation)." On March 31, 1983, Wightman received an honorable discharge from the Army based on this psychiatric disorder, though he says the doctor attesting to his discharge never examined him either.
It was all part of a scam, says Wightman-Cervantes, who claims his commanding officer was the true "psycho," suffering from post-traumatic stress after his tour of duty in Vietnam. Any soldier he decided was a malingerer was diagnosed with a personality disorder and discharged on mental grounds. Wightman-Cervantes says he was responsible for instituting an inquiry with the Inspector General's Office that brought attention to this questionable discharge practice.
In 1986, Wightman-Cervantes applied for a change in diagnosis with the Veteran's Administration, and the examining psychiatrist concluded that Wightman-Cervantes was suffering only from "mild adjustment problems" at the time of his discharge. He petitioned the military at least three times to reconsider his discharge, but the Army Discharge Review Board turned him down each time. In 1989, he filed a federal lawsuit against the secretary of the Army, attempting to change the grounds for his discharge again. But the trial judge dismissed the case, and Wightman's appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was equally unsuccessful.
After leaving the Army, he moved to Arlington in 1983, went to work at LTV Corp. building B-1 bombers, and finally felt safe enough to come out. "Why wouldn't I be openly gay?" he jokes. "People have plenty of reasons to hate me other than being gay." But he resigned from LTV Corp., he once swore in court papers, after a homophobic supervisor attempted to deny him a management position.
Embittered by the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Georgia statute criminalizing sodomy was constitutional, he decided to attend law school. In 1988, at age 30, he began classes at the University of Houston, but quickly became a pariah.
"On the first day of class, this professor had us stand up and say why we'd come to law school," he recalls. "I told them I was here to fight for gay and Hispanic rights. No one would talk to me after that, not even the gay students."