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Melvin Dwork, interior designer and gay rights icon, dies at 94
Jun 20, 2016

New York City designer Melvin Dwork, who successfully fought an “undesirable” discharge from the Navy and whose work has been published in The New York Times, House & Garden, Town & Country and Architectural Digest, has died. The designer, who was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 1993, was jailed as a 22-year-old student in Navy officer candidate school in 1944 and determined to be “deviant” by psychiatrists after a companion of his had “given him away,” according to The New York Times. He was discharged from service during World War II as “undesirable.” But Dwork fought back, and, with the help of advocates for gay and lesbian military personnel, decades after his discharge, the Navy changed his discharge to “honorable” in 2011. 


Melvin Dwork; courtesy Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Dwork was known to be the first WWII vet to have an “undesirable” discharge removed, reported the Times, “although his case may have opened the floodgates for appeals in hundreds of similar cases. His was resolved shortly before the military ended its 18-year-old ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, which barred openly gay people from service but prohibited discrimination against those not open about their sexuality.”

After his discharge, Dwork studied at the Parsons School of Design, worked for antiques dealers and served as a partner at Altman-Dwork, a decorating and antiques firm; he also assisted designer Yale R. Burge, was a design partner of James Maguire, and worked for clients including RCA chairman Robert W. Sarnoff and film director Milos Forman.

Dwork did not overturn the undesirable distinction on his own. He received help from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which was created in 1993 to combat discrimination against gay and lesbian military members impacted by "don’t ask, don’t tell.” In August 2011, reports the Times, the Arlington, Virginia-based Board for Correction of Naval Records changed Dwork’s discharge to honorable, saying that the Navy had experienced a “radical departure” from its wartime ban on gays, and calling Dwork’s service an “exemplary period of active duty.”

Decades after his discharge, Dwork met up with the former companion who had outed him to the military. As Dwork explained to the Times, “He had always denied his sexuality.... He didn’t want to be exposed. After all those years in denial, and your own family doesn’t know who you are? I said: ‘Let them know. They’ll love you anyway.’ But he couldn’t do it. I forgave him, but we don’t speak any longer.”

Dwork’s longtime companion, choreographer and dancer John Butler, died in 1993. Dwork died last Tuesday in Manhattan and is survived by his brother. 

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