An Open Letter to Midshipmen: From Jacob Reitan, Equality Ride Director

Jacob ReitanDear midshipmen,

My name is Jacob Reitan. I am the Director of the Equality Ride, a nationwide movement of young adults traveling by bus to institutions of higher learning that prohibit the enrollment of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

On Friday, October 21, the Equality Ride will come to the Naval Academy. Our intention in coming to the Academy is to meet and talk with you and your fellow midshipmen about the effects of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." As I am sure you know, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" prohibits service members from coming out as openly gay or lesbian people. This law forces many, some whom are your peers, to live a lie as a condition of service.

A few days ago I received a letter from Deputy Superintendent Captain Helen Dunn regarding our impending visit to the Naval Academy. In her letter to me, Captain Dunn expressed in no uncertain terms that if I or any other members of the Equality Ride were to come onto Naval Academy property we would be arrested.

I was discouraged and saddened by this decision. I had hoped we could have had fruitful and honest dialogue about gay and lesbian issues. I wanted to hear your views on the prospect of serving in the Navy with openly gay and lesbian people.

I know that your opinion on this issue matters a great deal. Not only does your opinion have a strong effect on the closeted gay and lesbian students who are currently serving with at the Academy, but they also have an important effect on how the wider community views "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." People ranging from members of Congress to your commanding officers, look to you and your fellow midshipmen in forming their opinions on "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

Because of the influence your views have, I had hoped we could have had the opportunity to talk in person. I wanted to share with you my story. I am a 23 year old gay man who came out at the age of 17. Because of my decision to come out as gay, I could never seriously consider attending the Naval Academy. It is true that I could have chosen to go back into the closet and serve under the fear of being found out, knowing that at any moment my career and education plans could come to an end. But that is neither fair nor just.

I can’t image the stress that some of your peers and perhaps you are going through having made the choice to serve while in the closet. To those of you who are in this position, I wish to say that I especially applaud your service. You bear a burden that is largely unknown. I want you to know that you do not need to bear it alone. There are resources and individuals at the Academy that you can come out to and talk to about your fears, stresses and concerns. If you are looking for a "safe place" on campus where you can be talk about what you wish without fear, please contact me at jake@equalityride.com or SLDN at 1-800-538-7418 and we can put in contact with a Naval Academy professor who you can go to in confidence.

In the weeks leading up to this action I have received emails from midshipmen giving both positive and critical feedback to our intended visit. Many of those who had critical feedback referenced their desire to see the Naval Academy remain "masculine," while others said they did not want to see homosexuality "thrown in their face." I want to put those fears to rest. We do not wish to make the Academy "gay" nor do we wish to change the spirit of the Academy in any way. All we want is the right to serve our country without being forced to lie in order to do so.

Take a moment and consider what it must be like to be a closeted gay person at the Academy. Everyday questions can become a series of complex lies. Questions as simple as, "Who did you have dinner with last night?" or "Who just phoned you?" can easily become points of stress.

For some closeted members of the Academy, this stress becomes too much and rather than continue to live under these condition they choose to come out. For other closeted members of the Academy, they are outed by no choice of their own. Whatever the case, their fate is the same, the person is discharged.

Since "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was put in place in 1992, over 10,000 people have been discharged from the Armed Forces because of their sexual orientation, an average of two people per day.

In 1997, Tommie Watkins was president of his class at the Naval Academy. After it came to the attention of his commanding officers that Tommie was gay (by no declaration of his own) Tommie was discharged. In an instant Tommie’s education and professional career came to end.

After his discharge, the federal government sued Tommie for all the money they had invested in his education. Thankfully, after three years Tommie was victorious against the government in their suit. As long as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" stays in place, what happened to Tommie could happen to any midshipmen who is gay or lesbian.

I am proud to say that Tommie will be coming with the Equality Ride to the Academy on Friday. I wish you could have the opportunity to meet him.

"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" needs to end. For that to happen, your commanding officer and the members of Congress need to hear from you. They need to hear you say, "For whatever it is worth, I am ready, willing and able to serve with openly gay and lesbian people."

I hope you will find the courage to make that statement. It is a simple declaration and it will go a long way in helping reach the day when all service members are treated equally.

If you wish to make this statement, we have provided an online petition for midshipmen where you can lend your voice for the cause of equality.
The petition simply states "I am willing and able to serve with openly gay and lesbian people."

Will you consider signing onto this statement? Will you make that simple commitment to equality?

To sign the petition go to the following web address: www.equalityride.com/navy_petition.php

Whatever your views are on this issue, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this letter and hearing me out. I would appreciate hearing your feedback. My email is jake@equalityride.com and my phone number is 952-212-8311.

Sincerely,

Jacob Reitan
Director of the Equality Ride

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