Gay activists demonstrate at Naval Academy

BY admin

October 21 2005 11:00 PM ET

A gay rights
protest at the U.S. Naval Academy was held without incident
Friday, with about 40 protesters mixing with midshipmen for
two hours, despite the academy's warning beforehand
that protesters risked arrest if they came on campus.
The protesters, part of Virginia-based gay religious
group Soulforce, held a silent vigil outside the
academy's gates for about half an hour Friday morning
before going on campus to have lunch in a visitors'
cafeteria and fanning across campus to say hello to
midshipmen.

Many of them were
surprised to be allowed on campus and didn't seem to
know what to do once they got there. "We all thought we'd
get arrested," said protester Lizzy Hall, 20,
shivering in an "Equality Ride" T-shirt and sandals in
the cool, drizzly weather. Hall was among a group of
three protesters who wandered around the campus
shaking hands with the few midshipmen they could find.

The protest
organizer, Jacob Reitan, called the event a "huge
victory" because it went off without incident. Even though
most midshipmen didn't stop to talk to the protesters,
Reitan said, "our presence and our shirts are enough.
Just to be out and gay on academy grounds is huge."
Reitan added, "We didn't think we'd get this far."

School officials
seemed a little relieved too that the protest ended
without any arrests or disturbances. Watching the protesters
eat pizza slices in the cafeteria, academy spokeswoman
Deborah Goode said, "I think it went just fine." Some
protesters wandered the campus after lunch not knowing
what to do. "This is what happens when you don't think
they'll let you on campus," said protester Tara Burgos.

The Naval Academy
protest was a test run for the gay rights group, which
plans to visit dozens of campuses next spring where students
are threatened with expulsion for being gay. In
addition to Christian colleges including Brigham Young
University, the group plans events at the other
military academies: West Point, the Air Force Academy in
Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Coast Guard Academy.

Among the
protesters Friday was Tommie Watkins, a former Naval Academy
student who was kicked out in 1997 for being gay. On his
first visit to the academy since then, Watkins said
many midshipmen know closeted gay colleagues in the
military and don't mind serving with them. Watkins
recalled a straight midshipman who approached him when he
was expelled. "He said he would serve with me and
follow me to death," said Watkins, now 30 and living
in Florida.

Though the
protest ended without incident, it appeared the two sides
would clash in the days preceding it. Soulforce was told its
members were not going to be allowed on campus for a
protest and faced arrest if they tried. A statement by
Cmdr. Rod Gibbons read, "A service member's sexual
orientation is considered a personal and private
matter." Reitan said protesters would come on campus anyway,
and several protesters said they were told to wear
comfortable clothes in case of arrest.

Academy officials
later said the protesters were welcome to come on
campus as visitors as long as they didn't carry signs or try
to corner midshipmen. That was enough to placate
Soulforce's group. "We didn't come here to cause a
ruckus," Reitan said Friday. "We came here to have an
honest dialogue, to say that no one should be forced to lie
to serve their country."

The protest
Friday was the latest challenge to the Naval Academy's
stance toward gay service members. Last year the
academy's alumni association voted for the second time
to reject a proposed gay and lesbian alumni chapter.
The group, San Francisco–based USNA Out, is the only
group ever denied affiliation by the school's alumni
association. (AP)

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