Report on the Equality Ride’s Journey to the United States Naval Academy

by Jacob Reitan, Equality Ride Director

Group photo of the Equality Riders

On Friday, October 21, forty-five young adults from around the Washington, D.C. area took part in the Equality Ride to the United States Naval Academy. The Equality Riders journeyed to the Naval Academy to take a stand against the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. Because of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" none of the over 4,000 midshipmen at the Naval Academy are allowed to come out as openly gay or lesbian people.

Prior to our arrival at the Academy, we thought that our day would end when we tried to gain entry to Academy grounds. In both phone calls and letters, Naval Academy officials had expressed in no uncertain terms that if we tried to enter Academy property we would be arrested. Captain Dunn, Chief of Staff for the Academy, stated in a letter to the Equality Riders, "Be advised that accessing the Academy grounds for the purpose of protesting or engaging midshipmen, faculty and staff, may subject you to arrest and prosecution by the appropriate Federal authorities."

The Academy’s threats of arrest caused a great deal of media interest in the Equality Ride. Numerous news outlets ran stories on the Academy’s threats prior to the day of the direct action, including the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Capitol Reporter, The Navy Times and the Washington Blade.

In the face of the Academy’s threats, the Equality Riders were undeterred. We had stated our intention to seek dialogue with midshipmen and we were going to stay true to our goals even if it met submitting to arrest in order to do so.

Rev. Tommy Watkins
Rev. Tommy Watkins

Upon our arrival at the Naval Academy, numerous news outlets were waiting. As a group we got off the bus that had transported us from HRC headquarters in DC and lined the side walk in front of the Academy. For a half an hour we stood in silent vigil, holding up signs that read "Lift the Ban" and "Hear Us Out." After the Vigil, we held a press conference to explain to the assembled media why we had come to the Academy. Speaking at the press conference was Rev. Tommie Watkins, a former midshipmen, who the Academy discharged in 1997, when it was discovered he was gay.

After the press conference, the group lined up at Gate 1 to enter the Academy like any other visitor. At this point, we all assumed it would be just a few short minutes before we were taken off to jail, but instead, after consulting with the Department of Defense, the marines guarding Gate 1 allowed us to enter onto Academy grounds.

It was a rainy day but at that point it felt like the sun was shinning down on us. As a group we assembled together, to talk about our plan for the remainder of our day at the Academy. It was clear that dialogue we hoped for would indeed take place. The reality that for one day there would be out GLBT people at the Academy and midshipmen would know about it was enough to make us consider the day a success.

After a short group discussion, we decided we would go eat in Dahlgren Hall. Sitting in groups of four or five, we ate pizza, while trying our best to converse with the midshipmen eating beside us. Our time in Dahlgreen prompted one news outlet to lead into the story with the statement "Naval Academy protest turns into Pizza Party."

After eating in Dahlgreen, Commander Gibbons, the Public Relations Officer, came over to asking me to follow him. Captain Dunn, the Chief of Staff of the Academy and the woman who had threatened to arrest us, wanted to meet with me.

In our meeting, Captain Dunn expressed her concerns that we were talking with midshipmen about gay and lesbian issues. I explained to her that this was the purpose of our visit. In response, she explained that visitors to the Academy do not express political views. I explained that to us this is more than just a political view, this is our lives and humanity and from the beginning we had been honest with her about our intentions in coming onto campus. Nonetheless, she said if we continued to talk about gay and lesbian issues with midshipmen she would have us escorted off of the Academy grounds. She made it clear that if midshipmen asked us why were here, we would be allowed to talk about our issues, but only if they asked us.

We were faced with a decision: leave willingly, stay our course and get arrested or choose to stay under their restrictions. We choose to remain under their limitations. I still don’t know if it was the right choice but it allowed us to remain and continue to meet midshipmen. Midshipmen knew why we were there. They had been notified by Captain Dunn in a brigade-wide email about our coming.

Jacob Reitan attempting to shake hands with a midshipman
Jacob Reitan attempting to shake hands with a midshipman

For the rest of the afternoon we remained and functioned under the Naval Academy’s restrictions. In small groups we wandered the campus and met a great deal of midshipmen. At 2 p.m. classes changed and we created a pseudo assembly line where nearly all midshipmen had to file past us in our brightly colored rainbow shirts choosing to shake or not shake our hands.

At the end of the day, I think we left an indelible impression upon the Academy. According to the city of Annapolis, it was the first time in the history of the Academy any sort of demonstration had taken place there. In the days following the action, I received numerous emails both positive and negative from midshipmen sharing their feedback. Many of these emails are below for you to read.

The event was covered by over twenty accredited news crews including: the Washington Post, The Capitol Reporter, Capitol News Service, The Washington Examiner, The Navy Times, The Washington Blade, The Baltimore Sun, QTV, The AP (a story that was picked up in over forty papers), ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates of Baltimore and Washington D.C, Fox News (USA), The Family Radio Network, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The Mankato Free Press.

Feedback from midshipmen both postive and negative:

Naval Academy Sign"I am a midshipman, and while I am not gay/lesbian, I support your cause."

"Gay people in the military would just be harassed beyond control. It’s for their own good that they don’t tell anyone. Why don’t you mind your own damn business and stay off our campus."

"You really think that an institution like the US military cares one iota about what your absurd organization is intent on promoting? You make me sick. Ask any USNA midshipman what they really think of your political view and they will scoff and tell you to get off their property. 4999 midshipmen should be made uncomfortable by a homosexual in their midst so that one gay mid can be satisfied? Get real."

"Keep the fags out of the Navy."

"I am writing to you concerning your visit to the Naval Academy this Friday, October 21. I wanted to let you know the stir that you’ve caused at our institution. First off, as masculine as this school is, rumor spreads faster than in a girls bathroom at a middle school. So as you might have guessed, your visit is THE topic of conversation on the mouths of Mids.

I don’t have any real point in this email except that I wanted to make sure that you knew what you were getting yourself into. My school has a stigma against anything that is different (which is understandable considering they drill uniformity into us from day one). Also, there is a very bad mob mentality here which causes even the most rash individuals to get caught up in the fray which leads them to sometimes think things they wouldn’t otherwise think and say things that they wouldn’t otherwise say. So on Friday you might run into some people that are incredibly ignorant and might say or do inappropriate things. This might quickly lead you to believe that America is defended by vulgar, ignorant, idiotic people. I am writing to assure that that this is not true. Because we live in such close quarters and go through such incredible experiences together with men to the left and right of you there is a bond created not incredibly unlike the bond that is created between homosexuals. This gets soldiers to feel very insecure so they become homophobic to counteract this and to assert their ‘masculinity.’ I’m sure you’re well aware of all this, but I’d thought that I’d inform you on my opinion so that you don’t go home Friday disgusted with humanity.

I respect what you do and I’d like you to know that it takes more courage to lead a group such as equality ride every day than some of these Midshipmen will ever have to muster up in a combat zone. Personally, I’m not gay, but I have a family member that is and I think that Friday is going to be an interesting and hopefully enlightening day for all."

"I hope that your voice will be heard and that everything goes smoothly. Good luck and see you tomorrow."

"I respect your opinion but I disagree with it. I don’t think you guys realize what it is you are asking for. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy exists as a compromise, a way to allow homosexuals to serve in the military, not a means to root them out. If a servicemember is homosexual, he or she will indeed have to deal with the added stress of keeping it a secret, but he or she will not have to lie about it, at least not officially. While being homosexual would in no way prevent a sailor or marine from doing their job, neither would having long hair. Still, we have short hair, wear uniforms, shine our shoes, and don’t publicly express homosexuality.

I’m sorry that you guys can’t come on the Yard as a group. I don’t see that there’s any way they could stop you from coming on as individual civilians. I’d be happy to unofficially discuss this matter with you and academy culture via email if that would help to foster understanding."

"I am currently a Midshipman at the Naval Academy and I just want to say that I support what you guys are doing. While I am not gay, I believe the policy we have right now is narrow minded and short sighted. The worst part about it is the fact that this policy breeds unfamiliarity and mistrust among those in the military towards gays and lesbians. You must understand that a majority of the people here have never been exposed to anything of this sort, and frankly, it scares them. Because of this, I wish to apologize in advance for anything my brethren say or do. They should be disciplined enough not to do anything but unfortunately some can act very childish. It is good to see that some young people actually get off their asses and do something about it, Thank you."

"There are a number of midshipmen, including myself who support serving with any citizen who agrees to abide by the set standards of conduct regarding fraternization within units. This was not a new standard introduced by Clinton in the 1990’s, this was introduced when women began serving decades ago. It is meant to maintain good order and discipline within the services. These rules entail that officers and enlisted may not date, nor have unduly familiar relationships. These rules also apply to members of the same command, or unit.

Furthermore, I would like to reiterate that there are servicemembers who would have no qualms about serving with openly gay and lesbian mean and women. But at the same time, there are still a small number of servicemembers in the fleet and the academy who do not even wish for women to serve, let alone gays. I say this only to give you a pulse on the equality issues we currently have as evidenced by statistics taken in 2004.

At the risk of my own expulsion from the academy, I had to set up a temporary civilian email account for this message. Although I am not gay nor bisexual, such correspondance can be taken out of context. Furthermore, I wish to remain anonymous if you should choose to post this email on your website. The name I give is an inside academy joke, If you ever make it inside for a guided tour, look at the nameplate on door of the "standard" midshipman room next to the main office of Bancroft Hall.

While I cannot extend a greeting to you on behalf of the academy, let me at least welcome you to Annapolis. Also if you enjoy sushi, try the Ying Yankee."

"I am a heterosexual man, and graduated from the Naval Academy on May 27th, 2005. For what it’s worth, I’d like to let you know that you guys are right on, and I’m glad you’re making a stop at USNA. I think the military’s policy on sexual orientation needs to catch up. There’s a large portion of midshipmen (maybe even a majority) who are all-around reasonable, compassionate, and care about their fellow man without exception, but USNA is a good place to find those that need to be confronted with their own prejudices and those of their institution. Keep in mind that Friday is practically a holy day for every midshipman that walks out of Gate 1 after a hard week of academy life. I hope you can get a few who wouldn’t normally to stop and listen. Remember to thank them for their service. I wish you the best of luck. I’ll be checking the site to see how it went."

"To all the Equality Ride participants from today’s rally,

I’d just like to give you a heartfelt thank you for your rally today here at the Naval Academy. I’m sure you can surmise the general atmosphere that was raised here in the days prior to your visit; suffice it to say that you were the talk of every passing period and at every table during meals. Wednesday and Thursday this talk was, on the whole, negative. Tonight, however, there seems to be a slightly changed atmosphere when the subject is brought up. People around Bancroft Hall are not as apt to outright blast anyone who voices dissent about the idea of gays in the military.

In short, you had an effect."

"While it may still be a while before anything changes, there are those of us here who appreciate wholeheartedly the efforts you’ve gone to and hope that you continue. There is little we can do while here, in the interest of our careers, but it warms the heart to know that somewhere out there people are fighting for us. From myself and my shipmates, again: thank you."

"My writing to you is a taboo as I am subject to the policy you and others were protesting today. All I ask is that if you choose to mention this email to anyone, please refrain from ever mentioning or giving out my email address. Do reply however as I would love to hear from you. This is a dumby acct that I can check, but just for safe keeping I prefer to remain anonymous. That being said. How did it go today? I saw the shirts and Im guessing you guys got on base, but anything come of it? Did the admiral meet with you? Any media coverage? Just curious. I think what you guys did today was very courageous. I love serving my country but truly despise this policy. I can only hope that in the coming years people will realize how unfounded their fears of homosexuals are and embrace them into the armed services that same way all races and genders are. I don’t know how much was accomplished today, but if the fact that you made me proud and happy that I am fighting for people like you then I am glad. I wish I could do more. Thanks for thinking of us you all have inspired me and I wish you nothing but the best in your future efforts. Everyday I fear a witch-hunt, its just wrong."

"I am sorry that I have to do this anonymously, but I just wanted you to know that I support you and all that equalityride is trying to accomplish. I see this as our generation’s civil rights fight, and I look forward to the day when, instead of shutting you out, the academy will open its gates. I don’t know when that will be, but until then, don’t let them discourage you. This nation, this naval academy, needs to be shaken up, needs to be woken up. And it will happen. Sincerely, A Midshipman."

"I am a midshipman at USNA, and I just finished reading your open letter to the brigade. I had a few responses to one of the ideas presented in it.

I got to thinking about whether I feel that serving with openly gay people would be detrimental to my job as a midshipman and my future work as a naval officer, and about the "closeted" gay and lesbians that I could serve with. I read in the letter about stresses becoming too much for a "closeted" member of the academy, that the member would discharge himself to come out of the "closet". This idea really saddens me, that a member of this brigade would volunteer to go to this military institution and then quit because this person is homosexual. But I would prefer that the person leave than continue with their current set of values, not in regard to homosexuality, but of personal priorities. Here at USNA, we are taught from our first summer here a saying, "Ship, Shipmate, Self", with self being the very last priority. I prefer the boiled down version, "Service before self". If a person here at USNA does not have these priorities set, if a person here would rather be openly homosexual than serve in this military, I say let them leave. Under our current policy, there must be a decision on the part of person as to where their personal priorities lay.

In an environment where in two and a half years I could end up with a bullet ripping through my chest, I see it pretty simply. It is about service and sacrifices, my service is to my country, my sacrifice is that rifle round. Those who left the academy decided that being openly gay was higher on the list than serving their country."

"Thank you very much for the reply. I know you must be very busy, being that it is a night before the march. I think I may have come off a bit harsh towards your cause in my first email. I guess it’s a trait of most midshipmen or alumni to become immediately defensive about the Academy. I can see that perhaps my pride got in the way of explaining my opinions to you. In so many words, I was more or less trying to warn you that this will be your biggest obstacle to achieving the main goal of this march: to open communication between midshipmen and gay and lesbian students. When I mentioned the "demonizing of midshipmen," I should have specified that that is how many midshipmen are naturally going to feel about your group…maybe not because of what your saying, but because of who you’re saying it to. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s just how it is.

I too, am tired of the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. And honestly, I think many of the younger generation of military could definitely handle training and working alongside gay and lesbian counterparts. Unfortunately there is a very strong "old guard" that is still very prolific when it comes to policymaking and "standard setting."

I guess when I was thinking through and writing my first email, I thought you were wasting your time with this march because of how firmly rooted I believe the current brass of the military is in keeping things the way they are. But now I truly see why you must do this. Those midshipmen are the future of the Navy, and the country. Things won’t change right away, but with causes like yours, I’m sure there is a great chance of influencing the next generation for the better. Good luck, God bless."