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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004

Gay alumni seek Naval Academy's nod

Washington Post

He guarded the secret throughout his four years at the U.S. Naval Academy, and for a few years after that as an officer. Jeff Petrie knew that if his self-described "double life" were exposed, his military career would be over.

Then, on a stop in Oman during the Persian Gulf War, Petrie boarded his ship and saw a piece of paper with familiar handwriting.

It was a steamy love letter from his boyfriend back in the States. Someone had opened it and placed it on the quarterdeck for everyone to read. "I was afraid that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people were going to grab me and throw me over the side," he said.

Instead, nothing happened.

Since leaving the Navy without incident in 1993, Petrie has gone from hiding his sexuality to petitioning the academy's alumni association for formal recognition of a San Francisco-based chapter for gay men and lesbians that he has founded. The association's board of trustees is scheduled to take up the petition at a meeting Thursday by the Castro Chapter, named for the Castro District, a heavily gay neighborhood in San Francisco.

The group would give gay alumni a way to connect with their alma mater, said Petrie, 37. It also would let the current generation of gay midshipmen know there have been others at the academy who created fictional girlfriends, who constantly worried that they'd fall under suspicion, be investigated and banished, he said.

If approved, the chapter would be the first gay alumni group to be recognized by any of the nation's service academies. The group would be accepted more than 10 years after enactment of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and represent a small but encouraging sign for advocates pushing to have gays serve openly in the military.

The Castro Chapter's effort represents another battle in a "cultural war going on inside the military community," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Little by little, "Doors are opening" for gays in the military, he said.

A poll of military members and their families, which was released last month by the National Annenberg Election Survey, showed that while most commissioned and noncommissioned officers said they thought gays should not be allowed to serve openly, 50 percent of junior enlisted personnel officers said they should. Forty-three percent of those junior officers said they were opposed.

In recent years, prominent retired officers have criticized "Don't Ask Don't Tell," saying it forces troopsl to keep secrets from each other. John D. Hutson, who retired in 2000 as judge advocate general of the Navy, wrote last year in the National Law Journal: " 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' is virtually unworkable in the military — legally, administratively and socially. Rather than preserving cohesion, it fosters divisiveness."

During the presidential campaign, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said the policy should be revised. It also has been criticized by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which said that about 10,000 troops have been kicked out of the service since the policy was enacted in 1993. But those numbers dropped as the United States went to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, a decline that "has not been lost on many Americans," the defense network said in a report.

Still, in general, the service academies and the military continue to be tough places for gay men and lesbians, Belkin said.