Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

OutServe Magazine | December 7, 2012

Scroll to top


Service Academies Lead DADT Repeal

Service Academies Lead DADT Repeal

By Neal Simpson

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge/Released)

Sept. 20, 2011 passed by like any other Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; classes proceeded normally and life was ‘business-as-usual.’ This is according to Tyler, a sophomore cadet at West Point, originally from southeast Michigan. Tyler’s observations were similar to those of Daniel, an active-duty officer on the faculty at the U.S. Naval Academy, and of Col Stella Renner, the Air Force Academy’s vice commandant for culture and climate. West Point Chief of Staff Col Charles Stafford attributed the relatively benign response to the younger generation. “The generation of today educated the generations of yesterday, and we’ve had no problems,” said Stafford.

Because the service academies are higher education institutions, their emphasis is on learning and the “population is already in receive mode,” said Colonel Stafford. This fact is an important distinction when observing the effects of the repeal of DADT on their campuses, especially when compared to frontline troops or other military units. While issues such as discipline and morale transcend each of the academies and their respective services, things like academic integrity and scholarly dissent and debate are concepts that often have no place on the frontlines, but are essential to intellectual development and growth of academy cadets and midshipmen. These specialized issues create an environment with specific challenges that also result in solutions unique to the academies.

Each academy is unique in its perspective, process and progress. Long before the repeal, cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy were laying the groundwork for equality and diversity at their school.

Melissa McCafferty, now a Coast Guard ensign, was a freshman cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in 2007 and obtained official academy endorsement to observe the annual Day of Silence—a nationwide event that raises awareness about harassment and bullying of LGBT individuals. In April, 2007, the Coast Guard Academy became the first of the service academies to participate in the Day of Silence. Cadet McCafferty and others subsequently formed a loose coalition of cadets who helped promote an environment of tolerance for LGBT individuals. Activities included a showing of the movie Milk, and in 2011, they also hosted a showing of Out of Annapolis, a documentary they used to help prepare the Coast Guard Academy for the imminent repeal of DADT. These showings occurred on campus in the auditorium, and they all occurred pre-repeal.

Most significant about the Coast Guard Academy’s preparation, however, was the creation of an organization called SPECTRUM, their sixth diversity council. Comprised of two cadets from each grade, and with the assistance of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the academy’s staff judge advocate, the Commandant of Cadets and the superintendent, the group promotes respect and tolerance for all, regardless of sexual orientation. Because of the bravery of cadets like McCafferty and the forethought of the Academy’s leadership, SPECTRUM was organized, chartered, and ready for command approval when the repeal of DADT became official. On Dec. 1, 2011, SPECTRUM became an official part of the Coast Guard Academy, and made history as the first gay-straight alliance at a U.S. service academy.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class NyxoLyno Cangemi (FOR RELEASE)

Other academies followed in the footsteps of the Coast Guard with cadet and faculty sponsored organizations. The Merchant Marine Academy, the first academy to accept women into its ranks, has always been a leader for equality. Though a component of the U.S. Department of Transportation, it educated cadets and staff to better prepare for future interaction with the Navy Reserve and other services. “[Our] admission, retention, and misconduct rules [continue] to apply in gender and sexual orientation-neutral fashion, so the repeal of DADT does not significantly impact the USMMA,” says Capt William Rospars, assistant superintendent for plans, assessment, and public affairs for the Merchant Marine Academy.

Across the country at the Air Force Academy, “the repeal has gone very smoothly. I have heard anecdotally that some cadets are interested in starting a cadet [gay-straight alliance] club,” said Colonel Renner.

Similarly, at the Naval Academy, the school’s diversity committee reached out to American University to discuss a program called Safe Spaces, creating a place for midshipmen to come out. They trained faculty and staff (voluntarily), including chaplaincy, midshipmen counselors and diversity office personnel. “Most of the faculty in attendance were civilians,” says Daniel. He attributes this to a command climate at the Naval Academy that seems to tolerate or possibly embrace it.

Daniel, an east-coast native and service academy graduate, is still in the closet at the Naval Academy. When asked why, he said “I still hear the [gay] jokes and comments. Not daily anymore, but certainly a few times a week. Why risk being ridiculed,” he asks. “I’ve established a reputation here, and I’m not sure how people would react.”

For Daniel, the Naval Academy faculty is really like two families: the military family and the civilian family. And while those families are cordial, they see the world differently. The civilian side, represented by the academic dean, is openly supportive of the repeal. It’s this family that reached out to AU about Safe Spaces. The military side, represented by the superintendent and the commandant of midshipmen, seems indifferent. While he has not observed any discrimination, he doesn’t want to risk it.

“I’m happy with my job, I enjoy teaching at the Naval Academy, and I don’t want that to change. I don’t want people to change their opinion of me when they find out I’m gay.” Daniel is hopeful, however, that time will bring about change. Of the 20-plus gay midshipmen he knows, none are out to the brigade, either. “They value me as a faculty member and as a mentor. So that’s progress.”

West Point, like the Coast Guard Academy, seems to embrace the repeal as a mission.
“The most effective soldier is the one who believes in and trusts the chain of command to respect and accept him or her fully,” said Colonel Stafford. “Leaders must breed a command climate that demands respect and acceptance of all of our people.”

He admits that fostering such a climate is a process. “Some service members worry that they will be judged if they seek help or come out, or that their issues won’t be adequately resolved. Leaders must demonstrate that we will ‘walk the walk’ and take care of our own.”

Tyler, a West Point sophomore, agrees. “No gay cadet that I knew fostered any delusions that repeal meant the Army was suddenly gay friendly.” He believes that while the Army no longer discharges soldiers for being gay, some cadets are still afraid it will hurt their careers. He believes gay soldiers are still waiting to see what happens to the ones who come out first. How they are treated will play a large role in whether others choose to come out.

Tyler is optimistic, however. “We have come a long way since September. Gaining acceptance in the military community will not be easy or quick, but I am confident it will happen.”

DoD photo by Cherie Cullen/Released

West Point is in the process of creating its own version of SPECTRUM, modeled after the Coast Guard Academy. Working with alumni such as OutServe’s own Sue Fulton from Knights Out (the LGBT alumni association for West Point), cadets are in talks with administration officials now and hope to have a functional gay-straight alliance soon.

When asked about the next challenge on the horizon for equality, Colonel Stafford was quick to answer: “Diversity. We need a culture of diversity across the board.” In his opinion, there is always an ‘issue of the day.’ But military leaders must look to the issues that never change. “Old issues like discrimination still happen, and they’re still wrong.” Stafford believes that regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, or ethnicity, service members must know that their leadership supports them, cares for them equally, and treats them fairly.

As each of the service academies move forward beyond the repeal of DADT, they will each continue to face issues based on their unique blend of military and academic disciplines. One thing that will continue to bind them together is that, like the rest of the military, they represent a cross-section of American society. As society advances and changes, so must the military and its academies. The example the service academies set in tolerance, acceptance and equality showcase how the military does the same thing for a society. As Colonel Stafford put it, “no one diversity issue is any better or worse than another. Discrimination is wrong, and intolerance won’t be tolerated.”