As midshipmen, they led double lives, quietly endured anti-gay slurs, and feared discovery and expulsion. But yesterday, 31 gay and lesbian graduates of the Naval Academy asked to be recognized, filing a formal application with the college's alumni organization to start a national chapter for homosexual graduates.
The request, delivered pointedly on Veterans Day, appears to be a first for a U.S. military academy. Although a West Point graduate has run an unofficial group for gay and lesbian service academy alumni for 12 years, never before have homosexuals sought official recognition from an academy alumni association, experts said.
It will be weeks before the Naval Academy Alumni Association makes what would be a historic - and controversial - decision on whether to grant the request. The decision will be viewed as a bellwether for how far veterans groups are willing to go in recognizing gays and lesbians in their ranks.
For the academy graduates - from the classes of 1958 to 1996, all no longer on active duty - the effort is as much personal and practical as political. They say that gay and lesbian Annapolis grads share a set of experiences that broader gay or veterans groups cannot easily relate to. They want a place to swap war stories, network and - perhaps most significantly - show homosexual midshipmen that they are not alone.
"I want gay and lesbian midshipmen to know that we have gone before them and that they can do it, too," said Jeff Petrie of San Francisco, a 1989 graduate and Operation Desert Shield veteran who was in Annapolis yesterday to deliver the application. "If there were an alumni chapter when I was a midshipman, I would have known immediately that I was not alone and probably would not have come to the conclusion that I was a terrible person because I was gay."
The group is calling itself USNA Out.
Aaron C. Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the request, if approved, would be a cultural milestone. "While it's politically impossible for the military to acknowledge the presence of openly gay active personnel, recognition of a veterans group would be an important half-step along the way toward integration and away from discrimination," he said.
Belkin said that attitudes toward gays in the military have grown more favorable in recent years. He pointed to opinion surveys and to recent remarks by retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a Democratic presidential candidate, questioning the military's decade-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The policy, a compromise stemming from the Clinton administration's effort to end the military's ban on homosexuals, allows gays and lesbians to serve so long as they keep their sexual orientation secret. Academy students are considered active-duty personnel and are subject to the policy.
Skid Heyworth, a spokesman for the 50,000-member alumni association, a nonprofit group with no direct ties to the military, said he would not comment on the application until his board had a chance to review it, possibly at its Dec. 5 meeting but more likely next year. "We're just not going to speculate on what-ifs at this point," he said.
Belkin said the alumni association will likely find itself in an awkward position. It will have to choose between possibly antagonizing large numbers of conservative graduates, many still in uniform, and rejecting what appears to be a by-the-book request by bona fide alumni to form a chapter.
The gay and lesbian alumni, he said, are "people who have served their country honestly and courageously and who have followed all the rules and are asking for recognition through the same procedures as any other group."
Though the Naval Academy's nearly 80 alumni chapters are largely based on geography, Petrie said there is at least one precedent for a national chapter based on interest: one for recreational vehicle enthusiasts.
When he arrived at the academy, Petrie says, he thought that he was the campus's only gay student. Then, he took a train one weekend to Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood, a gay gathering spot, and was startled to see a young man carrying a standard-issue academy duffel bag. The man, a midshipman, introduced Petrie to the world of gay Washington, one that he said was light-years away from the academy.
At Annapolis, he kept his two identities - gay man and warrior in training - in separate compartments, tuning out when classmates made anti-gay remarks in the dorm or the mess hall. "If I was on the yard, I was just another midshipman," said Petrie, 36, a former surface warfare officer who now organizes events at fine arts museums. "But if I was outside the yard, I was someone else."
This fall, he sent e-mail to the 60 Naval Academy graduates who are members of the Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Alumni, the unofficial, Web-based group. More than half agreed to shed their anonymity and openly apply for recognition by their alma mater's alumni group.
"What happened today has really been something big," Petrie said yesterday. "We came out to our school."
Zoe Dunning of San Francisco, a 1985 graduate who served aboard aircraft carriers, said she dated male classmates in her academy days to throw off any suspicion that she was a lesbian. She lived in paranoia, she said, as she watched a dozen female mids investigated for suspected lesbianism, and three thrown out.
USNA Out, she said, "is critically important so that we demonstrate that we are proud and visible and have nothing to hide. I think all of us had a common experience at the Naval Academy that we want to prevent others from having to go through."
The academy spokesman, Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, said in a written statement that the school supports the Pentagon policy on gays and lesbians but does not tolerate anti-gay harassment. "A midshipman's sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter."
John L. Sewell of Seattle, a 1990 graduate who won a Navy commendation medal as a weapons officer aboard submarines, said his interest in USNA Out is a pragmatic one.
"Since I graduated, I've only met two or three other classmates who are gay or lesbian," he said. "I'm sure, statistically, that there are more. It would be nice, just from a sense of camaraderie, to meet those people."