A quarter-century ago the nation fixated on President Bill Clinton’s proposal to enact a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the U.S. Military. The bitter controversy erupted in the national media Jan. 30, 1993, when three Camp Lejeune Marines and the patrons of a gay bar named Mickey Ratz in Wilmington, N.C., went to battle.
The bar fight and the injuries sustained by one of the patrons, Crae Pridgen Jr., who recently died and once lived in Dallas for a brief time, dominated the headlines. Since then, the event that garnered so much notoriety at the time has faded in history. Everyone has forgotten that the LGBT community celebrated Pridgen -- who suffered cuts, bruises, a black eye, a cut lip and a lost tooth -- as a star in the aftermath of the bar melee.
Back then his appearances in restaurants and bars frequented by the LGBT community anywhere in the country triggered crowds of admirers and best wishers. The Human Rights Campaign penned a fundraising letter under his name, he appeared at the March on Washington as a headliner and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Marines on his behalf. He also made an appearance on the Today show.
It proved to be a short-lived celebrity. All changed in April 1993 when a judge in Wilmington acquitted the Marines on assault charges after a six-day trial covered live on television. The judge ruled the prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof, and that she believed the Marines had acted in self-defense. The Marines claimed they were taunted by gay patrons while Pridgen maintained that the military men, who entered the club with their girlfriends, attacked and yelled “Clinton must pay,” an alleged reference to the new military policy allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve.
The loss of the criminal case devastated Pridgen’s civil suit, and it later was settled out of court. The three Marines signed a statement saying that harassment is wrong, and they made a $100 contribution to the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Pridgen found it difficult to find employment after the debacle of the criminal trial, and his church expelled him from the congregation. He endured widespread criticism in his hometown, and nationwide from straight conservatives. As is the case with victims of violence, Pridgen suffered the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, such as anxiety and depression. Pridgen attempted to relocate to other cities. He spent some time in Montgomery, AL, the home of the Southern Poverty Law Center, before returning to North Carolina. While in Alabama he served as a volunteer lobbyist for the newly-formed Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama.
Pridgen, who relocated to Fort Lauderdale in 1999, died March 2 at the age of 53. He appears to have lived a much quieter life in his final years in comparison to his former high media profile. His obituary in the Wilmington Star News said that he died unexpectedly at Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.
During his time in Florida, Pridgen worked as a mental health technician. He also became active in Lambda South, a 12-step recovery program for LGBT people, and in Florida Roundup, a statewide conference of LGBT recovery groups, as the chair of various committees.
Few people today remember him, but Pridgen should be recognized by the LGBT community for bringing widespread attention to the ongoing effort to combat hate crimes and promote tolerance. He gave all he had to give, and he paid a heavy price for his contribution.
David Webb worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center as a writer and researcher at the time the organization represented Crae Pridgen. Webb was assigned to Pridgen’s case and worked with him closely.