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Gay activists
demonstrate at Naval Academy

Gay activists
demonstrate at Naval Academy

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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