Why Jeff Trail Was So Much More Than Andrew Cunanan's First Victim

The fourth episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story shows what a threat Andrew Cunanan posed to anyone who showed him kindness. On Friday, April 25, 1997, Andrew Cunanan arrived to Minneapolis with the intention of visiting his best friend, Jeff Trail, and his ex-boyfriend, David Madson. On Saturday evening, he invited Trail to Madson's apartment, where he was staying, and bludgeoned him to death with a sledgehammer. On May 3, he shot Madson in Rush Lake, Minnesota.

Jeff Trail, who was 28 when he died, will go down in history as being Andrew Cunanan's first victim in his five-person murder spree. But Trail, along with all of Cunanan's victims, should be remembered as so much more than that. In 1993, Trail, a Gulf War veteran and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, went on CBS's 48 Hours and spoke about his experiences as a gay man in the military.

The military officially banned all LGBTQ+ individuals from serving in 1981, resulting in 17,000 men and women being discharged over the course of 10 years. So, as a gay man, Trail was prohibited from being open about his sexuality among his fellow service members.

During the 48 News interview, Trail explained that he was forced to be guarded in all interactions with fellow service members, including casual talks about weekend activities. "Usually, I'm able to tell them what I've done, but it's who I've done it with that I can't explain," Trail told Richard Schlesinger during the interview, which he did in silhouette to maintain his anonymity.

To Trail, banning gays from the military made little sense from a national security perspective, as well as from a personal one. "Gays are here in the military. We perform our jobs and we do it well," he said. "You're going to weaken our national defense if you remove gays from the military. You're never going to do it 100% – it's just whether or not you're going to continue to hunt us and force us to fear."

In 1993, the year of Trail's interview, President Clinton signed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy into action, which was intended to ease the hard limits of the previous ban against LGBTQ+ people serving. DADT was a "compromise" – gays and lesbians could serve, so long as they remained silent. The law gave the following instructions for how to approach the topic of homosexuality in the military: “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, and don’t harass.”

Under DADT, Trail and other LGBTQ+ service members still had to keep silent about their personal lives (and weekend activities). Under the law, they were not allowed to talk about their sexual orientation, or have sexual relations with the same sex, while serving. Refusing to hide their sexuality would result in expulsion. By 2008, more than 12,000 service members had been discharged.

The policy led to service members feeling like they were living a "double life," as Sgt Joshua Gravett told The Guardian in 2016. “You’d never find me at a gay bar. You’d never find me on a chat room. All it took was someone just to think you were gay and they could report it. Even your closest friends that you wanted to tell all along, you couldn’t tell because the wrong person might hear.”

In 2011, President Obama repealed the discriminatory Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. "As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love," Obama wrote in his official statement.

People like Trail helped raise awareness about the actual experience of gay and lesbian servicemembers, and pave the way to the repeal of damaging policies. "He chose to speak to us because he thought it was the right thing to do," said Shlesinger, who interviewed Trail. "He did the interview in silhouette but he was still taking a tremendous risk with his career. He had absolutely nothing to gain by doing the interview. Yet he took the risk and spoke out."

In July 2017, a new chapter in the fight for LGBTQ+ inclusiveness in the military began. Back in June 2016, Obama established that the military had to begin accepting transgender recruits, starting on July 1, 2017. In a series of tweets in July 2017, President Trump declared that "the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender [sic] individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." Trump's ban was blocked by a federal judge, and beginning January 1, 2018, transgender individuals are allowed to enlist in the military.

In an upcoming episode of American Crime Story: Versace, Trail's experiences in the military and decision to go on 48 Hours will be explored further.

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