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At Service Academies, Gay Cadets Find Official Support But Remain Guarded After DADT Repeal

Naval Academy

First Posted: 11/03/11 12:19 PM ET Updated: 11/03/11 01:52 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- At the nation's service academies, gay cadets and midshipmen are now free to live the same out lives as their friends at civilian schools. But even as the academies express firm support, the future officers are taking only cautious steps in an environment they say is still challenging for the openly gay.

Long accustomed to seeking support in private from close friends, the cadets and midshipmen now have more public options, such as creating formal student groups. At Norwich University, a prominent private military college in Vermont, cadets created an LGBTQ Allies Club; the club held its first meeting on Sept. 20, immediately after the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal took effect. But the group, the first of its kind at the nation's service academies and military colleges, remains the only such group a little more than a month later.

One gay midshipman in his senior year, who requested anonymity, said the environment at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., was "better, but it still has a long way to go." He was reluctant to reveal his sexuality to classmates for fear that subordinates would question his leadership, and he knew of other midshipmen who had come out to mixed receptions.

The lack of more formal support groups at the academies is largely a result of similar concerns, interviewed cadets said. Officials at West Point, the Naval Academy and Air Force said they would be open to requests for support groups, and there are efforts underway at Coast Guard to launch a peer support group. But many gay students may not be prepared for such open recognition.

"The biggest group of resistance has been the gay and lesbian midshipmen," the senior midshipman said. "We said we're not ready to do this as a group yet. That's almost across the board."

Most cadets and midshipmen who spoke to The Huffington Post agreed that groups like the Norwich University club would probably help. But they also said the groups could make their peers uncomfortable.

"I do think it highlights the difference in a way that's almost unnecessary," said Andrew Houchin, a junior at West Point who is gay.

While attitudes among cadets are generally accepting, the cadets said pockets of resistance remain. The midshipman at the Naval Academy recalled issues with some of the enlisted sailors advising students, who are usually at least a decade older than the midshipmen.

"Some of the senior enlisted people who are here assigned to the academy," he said, "have openly expressed their discontent" and made off-color comments about the presence of open homosexuality at Annapolis. But he credited these comments to a generational gap, not some deep-seated antipathy toward the DADT repeal.

Cmdr. William Marks, the Naval Academy Public Affairs officer, said that no formal complaints or reports have been lodged. But "any off-color comment would be inappropriate," he said. "It's not in-line with an environment of respect that we have here."

Officials at the service academies paint an upbeat picture of acceptance and integration. Col. Charles Stafford, the chief of staff at West Point, said that the repeal had been a non-issue among both cadets and staff. "I think that the new policy actually helps us because it allows us to have a consistent definition of what honor is and how we value each other," he said.

Col. Stella Renner, the vice commandant of the Air Force Academy, echoed Stafford's praise for the "positive" climate. She called the post-DADT transition a routine part of "norming [cadets] to what is expected of them as Air Force officers and what we tolerate and what we don't, so this is just one more area where we do that."

For their part, gay cadets and midshipmen largely said they agree with those assessments. "Once [repeal] was finalized and ... done I haven't really seen anything that would be contrary to the spirit of the repeal," said Houchin, the West Point cadet. Even before the repeal, he said, his officers and instructors were "being consummate professionals and not really dignifying any sort of deliberately disrespectful behavior or whatever."

Houchin recently attended the Las Vegas conference held by OutServe, the national advocacy group for gays currently serving in the military. The trip had the official backing of West Point, which sent seven cadets and an officer. Coast Guard cadet Andew Gavelek also attended with the official support of his school, which he called "more than accepting" since the repeal.

The Coast Guard Academy has a history of leadership on the issue. Melissa McCafferty, now an officer aboard a Coast Guard vessel in Louisiana, was an early advocate on behalf of gay cadets at the academy. In 2007, long before DADT repeal was even being considered, she arranged for cadet participation in the annual Day of Silence, an event that targets anti-gay harassment and bullying.

"The command climate was fantastic," she said, highlighting the support of then-Superintendent Adm. Scott Burhoe for the events. By McCafferty's senior year, the 300 cadets participated in the Day of Silence out of a student body of 1,000. She also spent that year writing a charter for a gay-straight alliance at the school to be approved after repeal. The academy, she said, has been "preparing for this for almost four years now."

Despite their caution, the cadets and midshipman said they are positive about the future. While comments and uncomfortable moments occur, they say, they are becoming increasingly rare. A West Point freshman, speaking anonymously, said that his leaders made it clear that "in any professional interactions, any type of remarks that would seem derogatory ... are not going to be tolerated. And as far as dealing with cadets, I've noticed that they've changed in that sense."

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