At the inaugural meeting of Norwich University’s post-"don't ask, don't tell"-era LGBTQ Allies Club, Josh Fontanez raised the blinds in the student union’s fishbowl-style room. He was sending a message: we’re here, we’re visible, we’re active and we’d welcome your company.
It was a significant moment -- not just for the students in the room who, under the policy barring openly gay people from serving in the military, had been forced to keep secret a huge part of their identities while preparing to serve at the nation’s only private military college. After witnessing two failed attempts to get a similar group off the ground when DADT was still in place, some faculty members and administrators felt the gravity of the gesture as well.
Fontanez, the Norwich senior and Corps of Cadets trainee who will commission in the Army this May, is president of the Norwich University Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning and Allies Club. Fontanez laid the groundwork for the club in the spring while he was president of Norwich’s student government. (As Fontanez put it, the club “may not have been the most popular thing.” He wasn’t re-elected as student body president, but he’s now secretary of diversity and equality.)
“No one wanted to step up and take the leadership role, just because of whatever type of stereotyping would come along with that, or judgment,” Fontanez said. “Someone has to be the voice for a population of our student body, faculty and all members of our community who haven’t had a voice for a long time.”
Though Norwich enrolls citizens as well future officers, as the birthplace of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, the institution primarily teaches students who are headed for the military. Thus, attempts to start an LGBTQA group in the 1990s and 2000s had trouble getting off the ground. Since its first weekly meeting on Sept. 20 – the day of the DADT repeal – the new group has drawn a steady 20 or so gay and straight students, staff and faculty members, and the number is slowly growing.
“The repressive policy which demanded that people lie about their own sense of identity precluded honest support for everyone,” said M.E. Kabay, faculty adviser of the club and a professor of information assurance and statistics. “It was not possible for them to continue in their military careers under those circumstances, so there was basically no support.”
At the meetings and in an online discussion board, students are talking about their experiences and working with other local groups to plan events and educate students about LGBT issues.
Kabay, a vehement supporter of gay rights, has been at Norwich for 11 years and has never hidden his views: his office door is plastered with Human Rights Campaign stickers and posters. But for students in the age of DADT, things weren’t so straightforward. As current and former students at military academies have said, many lead double lives. Openly showing support could lead to suspicion, and eventual discharge. Even objections to homophobic slurs might raise eyebrows.
At military colleges, this has forced student LGBT groups – however formal or informal – underground, said Shane L. Windmeyer, co-founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a group that advocates for gay students and helps them and their allies create campus organizations. Students at Norwich and ROTC students at all kinds of institutions may have had to meet up secretly in the past, he said, but with the repeal, there’s no reason why military colleges wouldn’t create an official group.
“It’s not a surprise that after 'don't ask, don't tell' you’re going to see a lot of military-based institutions creating LGBT organizations, much as they have done on other campuses,” Windmeyer said. “These students are seeking support and visibility – possibly resources – on their campus, so one way to do that is to mobilize.”
Officials told Carolina Suazo and all her classmates in their very first ROTC class freshman year that if they were gay or lesbian and came out, they’d be kicked out. But she wanted to commission in the military, so she became a cadet anyway.
During Army training, “I had to stay in the closet,” Suazo said. Even though she didn’t have to worry about being found out at school, because the university itself couldn’t do anything, Suazo had to be careful about letting anything slip to a fellow cadet who might turn her in. Now, of course, she doesn’t have to worry.
But for others the repeal is still too recent, Suazo said. The stigma remains, and for the next year, people will still largely be considered “gay by association, in a way,” she said. But, she’s O.K. with it – all she can hope for is that they are open to different viewpoints.
“Pretty much the majority of the kids who come here are conservative white Republicans. And when you bring that issue up, it ruffles a couple feathers. But we just try not to take it personally,” Suazo said, adding that, while jokes about being “gay” are common in a testosterone-fueled environment, she rarely encounters a person who openly taunts her. “For people that don’t share my opinion, I think it’s going to be more of a maturity issue for them. I think it won’t be extremely hard, we just have to be persistent – just find a fine line between being pushy and being persistent…. If we ride out the storm, we will get to a better place at the end of it. This year will be rocky.”
Although students couldn’t unite openly while DADT was in effect, some alumni did. Groups of graduates (and in some cases, faculty and staff) who are no longer in the military have over the years created organizations to support each other and to advocate for currently enrolled LGBTQ students. The groups are active at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Naval Academy.
None of those institutions has formed a student LGBT group yet, nor have the Citadel or Virginia Military Institute, which, like Norwich, are members of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States.
At Norwich, the biggest obstacle to the formation of a club has been a “real and perceived” homophobia among students – not administrators – said Rowly Brucken, an associate history professor who teaches a class that includes the history of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.
The club is valuable because it dovetails with Norwich’s mission, which is based on tolerance and inclusion, and the emphasis of academe on challenging individuals and stereotypes, Brucken said. But it’s also important because the military should and does reflect the general population – and everyone needs to know that and be able to operate in that environment.
“If the military is going to protect us, it should be like us, and having this club which includes cadets really fights the stereotype of gays and lesbians as sort of weak cowards – invisible, not masculine,” Brucken said. “It challenges those stereotypes by saying, ‘Yes, you can be homosexual and be as skilled or unskilled in the military as anyone else.' ”
For some, the repeal brought the military in line with another proclamation – its own. The Blue Alliance, the LGBT alumni group of the Air Force Academy, points out that the “enforced silence” of gay and lesbian cadets was incompatible with the institution’s own Cadet Honor Code, which is shared by Norwich and other military colleges.
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.”