When his roommate at the Naval Academy said jokingly last year that Andrew Atwill was a homosexual, the midshipman told him to cut it out.
His friend didn't know it, Atwill says, but he really was gay — and under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, it could have jeopardized his military career.
This year, the first since the Clinton-era policy was repealed, Atwill says change has come to the academy. And talking about his sexual orientation, rather than being a career-ending offense, has rallied midshipmen to his defense.
"Pretty much everybody in my company knows now" that he's gay, Atwill said, and "they actually stand up for me." If his friends hear someone make a negative remark about homosexuality, he said, they "don't hesitate" to tell that person "it's not cool to do that anymore."
Eight months after the repeal, midshipmen both gay and straight describe a quiet but significant transformation at the Naval Academy. Gay midshipmen are seeking recognition for a student club. Last month, for the first time, faculty members and staff attended an off-campus dinner that had been organized secretly every year by and for gay midshipmen.
And Atwill and his boyfriend, classmate Nick Bonsall, planned to go together Saturday to the Ring Dance, a formal ball held each spring for third-year midshipmen.
"It's been really great, actually," Bonsall, 20, of Middletown, Del., said of life at the academy since repeal. "Everyone has been really accepting of us."
The experience at Annapolis this year mirrors those at the other service academies, but some future officers worry about what happens after they graduate. While their generation might be accepting, the broader military is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds. Some senior officers say privately that they won't come out for fear of jeopardizing their careers.
Across the military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — once highly controversial — is "going very well."
"It's not impacting on morale," he told reporters after receiving a report on the subject this month. "It's not impacting on unit cohesion. It's not impacting on readiness."
Gay cadets at the U.S. Military Academy and the Coast Guard Academy are forming clubs. Gay alumni at the Air Force Academy hosted their first football tailgate last fall, and gay alumni at the Air Force Academy and West Point held their annual dinners on campus for the first time.
But at the Naval Academy, while several gay midshipman describe a new level of comfort on campus, some wonder how they will be accepted after they leave Annapolis and join the fleet.
"For me, personally, it's still a concern," said Atwill, 23, of Fulton, Ky. "When I become an officer, I'm kind of worried about whether or not my sailors will take it the wrong way if I give them a pat on the back or, you know, happen to be in the bathroom at the same time as them.
"I'm afraid that if they know that I'm gay, that if I was even to look at them wrong, they may end up somehow turning that against me."
Not everyone foresees problems.
"In the fleet, it will be good," predicted Caitlyn Bryant, a second-year midshipman from Quantico, Va. Commanding sailors after the repeal, she said, "you don't have to worry about what they might think your orientation is. You can just focus on being a leader."
Bryant, 21, said she has seen no "negative backlash" against gay midshipmen: "People have accepted it."
Fourth-year midshipman Kara Yingling, who is not gay, said the broader student body "didn't make a big deal" of the policy change. Yingling served as president this year of the Midshipman Action Group, the academy's service club.
"We have seen more openly gay people, and I think that's good for them, because they no longer have to live their lives in fear that something's going to happen just because of their sexuality," said Yingling, 22, of Johnstown, Pa.
As to "the overall attitude of the academy," she said, "we are taught to separate our personal and our professional opinions, and that's still in play."
Don't Ask, Don't Tell was approved by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise to end a long-standing ban on homosexuals serving in the military, but also requiring them to maintain silence about their sexual orientation.
Commanders were not supposed to ask service members about their orientation (the "Don't Ask" half of the policy); gay members were prohibited from declaring their homosexuality ("Don't Tell"). They still could be discharged for homosexual conduct.
The compromise satisfied no one. Steve Hall, executive director of the gay alumni group USNA Out, called Don't Ask, Don't Tell a "cruel policy" that led gay midshipmen to believe that they couldn't discuss their sexuality with academy chaplains or counselors.
"One of the first things people want to do when they start figuring out that they're gay is they just want to talk to somebody about it," said Hall, a 1975 academy graduate. USNA Out counseled midshipmen on how to live within the rules.
Second-year midshipman Kay Moore entered the Navy after high school as an enlisted sailor. When she came to the Naval Academy, she said, "I felt the most closeted I had ever felt in my life."
"I didn't feel in danger at all," said Moore, 24, of Boise, Idaho. "I just felt that it was best for me to keep my mouth shut."
Congress voted at the end of 2010 to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, contingent on certification by the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that lifting the ban would not harm military readiness.
President Barack Obama, Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provided that certification last July, and after a 60-day waiting period, Don't Ask, Don't Tell ended Sept. 20.
By then, every service member, civilian employee and academy cadet in the military had received training on what the end of the policy meant. At the Naval Academy, each midshipman attended a session led by a senior officer and continued the discussion within their companies.
"Basically, it was stuff we already knew," Yingling said. "Something that our parents probably taught us. You know, like, be nice to people and don't be hurtful."
Moore describes the actual repeal as almost anticlimactic at first.
"Sept. 19 was one day and Sept. 20 was the next day," she said. "I mean, it's like going from Monday to Tuesday — it was not different.
"Now, this far along in the process, I've begun to feel that more people are open with it. I can have a conversation with my girlfriend or with my gay or lesbian friends in public and not have to worry about someone sending me up the chain of command for discharge."
Still, she said, she has to be careful not to offend some people with her sexuality.
"They may not like it," she said. "So I don't discuss things that even straight people shouldn't discuss in public. ... I can mention that I have a girlfriend, if I were to have one, without fearing separation from the Naval Academy."
For Bryant, repeal lifted "an unnecessary source of stress."
"Now that it's gone," she said, "I can just focus on what's really important, like my academics and trying to become an officer and just dealing with daily academy life."
Cmdr. William Marks, an academy spokesman, says the training helped to ease the transition. But he also credited the attitudes of the young people who make up the Brigade of Midshipmen.
"I would say most folks here are in this generation that is accepting and understanding," said Marks, a 1996 graduate. "We understand people are born a certain way and you have certain personal and private things in your life, and we're very much OK with just saying, 'Go ahead and do what you want to do.'"
Hall, of the alumni group, says the repeal does not solve all of the challenges that confront gay midshipmen.
"A lot of the kids now are much more comfortable about going and seeking professional guidance to get them through that process of transitioning from what they thought they were going to be versus what they're turning out to be," he said. "So, that's the best thing about it. But the whole issue of, 'Oh, my God, I'm gay, and I'm going to have to deal with this,' that's something that's going to be there forever."
Fabian Ortiz is "kind of jealous." The 2009 graduate says he kept largely to himself at the academy for fear of being outed.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell really caused me to become more defensive and keep everyone at bay throughout my four years," Ortiz said. "My whole life, I've always been an achiever and someone that always loved to take personal action. And this person did not show at the academy."
During the spring semester of his last year, Ortiz organized a private dinner for gay midshipmen and alumni. He used his midshipman loan to rent a room at an Annapolis condominium and cater a gathering for a closely guarded guest list of about two dozen.
The dinner quietly became an annual tradition, organized each spring by graduating midshipmen. But the numbers remained limited by the lack of an organized gay community at the academy and concerns about repercussions that participation might have on careers under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
This year's gathering, the first since repeal, was the largest yet, with nearly 100 in attendance — including academy faculty and staff and friends.
Ortiz, now 25 and a reservist at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County, described the gathering as joyful. He said the new attendees "added this sense that it was kind of official. It was acknowledged by people and respected."
"I wish I could enter the academy now," he said. "And maybe have a different story to my academy years."
Moore said the climate at the dinner this year "was much happier."
"It was just nice to see that so many people were OK with coming out to that event," she said. "The atmosphere was louder this year than it was last year because we were OK with saying that we were gay and that we were lesbian, and we didn't have to fear, you know, the next-door neighbors or whatever calling the academy and being like, 'Hey, this is what's going on.'"
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