Academy averts showdown

Naval officials allow gay rights protesters on campus without arrest

October 22, 2005|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

The U.S. Naval Academy averted a showdown with a gay advocacy group yesterday by allowing about 40 demonstrators onto the Annapolis campus.

The protesters had lunch in the visitors cafeteria and some attempted to talk with midshipmen, but there were no arrests or disturbances.

The academy backed off of a threat to arrest demonstrators who planned to gather on the campus after organizers agreed yesterday not to protest or approach midshipmen to discuss their agenda. The guarded campus of the military college is open to the public, but does not allow political protests.

The protesters had lunch in the visitors cafeteria, and after splitting into groups, some tried to talk with midshipmen about the military's policies toward gay men and women.

"We're here to talk about the military's `Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," Haven Herrin, 23, of Dallas told two female midshipmen in Rickover Hall. "What do you think about that?"

One of the midshipmen said she respected what the group was trying to do but told her to contact the public affairs office.

In another incident, a brief conversation between protesters and a midshipman was cut off by a military police officer. The midshipman, who declined to give his name, said he shook their hands and agreed to speak to them because he felt it was common courtesy.

"I'm a human being and they're human beings," he said. "I just wanted to show them that we're not robots like some people think."

Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, the academy's spokesman, said he was pleased by the outcome.

"These individuals peacefully visited the academy, they behaved themselves and left without incident," Gibbons said. "They complied with our request not to protest or demonstrate on academy grounds, nor did they advocate their cause with midshipmen."

Jacob Reitan, who organized the protest, said he considered the gathering a victory.

"We're merely seeking the freedom to serve our country without having to lie to do it," said Reitan, a member of the advocacy group, Soulforce.

The protest was the second in a series of "Equality Rides" that Soulforce has planned for more than 100 colleges and universities that expel students who are openly gay, including the other two service academies.

The rally comes about a year after the Naval Academy's alumni association rejected for the second time an application for a gay chapter by a San Francisco group.

Before going on campus, the protesters held hands in a line outside Gate 1. As they huddled together briefly on a cold, drizzly morning, Reitan said the group had created an online petition where midshipmen could state their opposition to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The policy, implemented in 1993 by the Clinton administration, allows gay men and women to serve in the military if they do not disclose their sexuality.

Tommie Lee Watkins, who resigned as a midshipmen in 1997 after officials began investigating him for homosexual conduct, said the policy, which he called "a lie," is not usually followed by the military, anyway.

"They say, `Don't ask, don't tell, don't harass, don't pursue,'" Watkins said. "But the government harasses and pursues homosexuals every day."

He said many midshipmen at the academy knew he was gay but nonetheless elected him class president twice. Watkins also said he knew of several midlevel officers stationed at the academy who openly acknowledge that they are homosexuals.

Reitan was the first to walk in past the armed Marines, and for a few minutes before he was admitted, he held his hands behind his back, apparently thinking he would be handcuffed. Group members said they received nonviolent protest training Thursday night and that 10 people had volunteered to be arrested.

After they were allowed on campus, Reitan spoke with Capt. Helen Dunn, deputy superintendent at the academy, and they agreed on ground rules for the visit. Then he and the rest of the demonstrators made their way to Dahlgren Hall, a visitors cafeteria.

Nathaniel Davis, 24, a former Navy corpsman who was expelled from the military in 2000, sat and ate pizza while he talked to two other protesters about his brief time in the military.

Davis said he had been in the military about a year and was careful whom he told about his sexuality. Every now and then, when he slept in the barracks while stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he would be awakened by a blanket being put over his face, he said.

"After they threw a few punches, they just ran away," he said.

When Davis complained of the harassment, he said, the military began investigating his sexuality. He was honorably discharged after admitting he was gay.

"The ironic thing is, it really helped me when the military threw me out." he said. "I became an activist, and it solidified who I am and what I want to do with my life."

From the cafeteria, the protesters broke up into groups with instructions to speak to midshipmen on campus who were willing to talk to them.

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