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Gay Alumni Open a New Chapter: Annapolis Graduates Want
Academy to Recognize Calif. Group

Washington Post
November 28, 2004; Page C01

By Christian Davenport

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.

Petrie grabbed it and began to worry
about who knew. That night, he lay in bed and anguished
over the possible consequences. At best, he thought,
he would be kicked out of the military. At worst, “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, 37, 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.

The group would give gay alumni, many
of whom have felt cast out by the academy, a way to
connect with their alma mater, Petrie said. 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 would
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 come
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.

Last year, the board rejected Petrie’s
group, then called USNA Out, saying it served only a
small group of alumni and therefore was exclusionary.
The board also said that alumni chapters must have a
geographic base from which to draw members.

“The process is consistent,”
said Skid Heyworth, a spokesman for the alumni association.
Although the association was not discriminating against
the group, he said, it “has never before chartered
a special-interest chapter, and it did not want to begin
that practice.”

This year, the group changed its name
to the Castro Chapter, named for the Castro District,
a heavily gay neighborhood in San Francisco. Petrie
said the chapter is open to everyone regardless of sexual
orientation. Two of its 68 members are straight.

“Last year, the Board of Trustees
said that our sexuality was never considered in their
decision to reject us,” Petrie said. “Now,
we get to put that statement to the test. We just want
to support our alma mater openly and honestly.”

The group’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 at Santa Barbara. Little
by little, “doors are opening” for gays in
the military, he said.

A poll of military personnel 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 specialists said they should.
Forty-three percent of those junior enlisted personnel
said they were opposed.

In recent years, prominent retired
officers have criticized “don’t ask, don’t tell,”
saying it forces military personnel 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
military personnel 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 gays,
Belkin said. “The resistance and discrimination
remains intense at many levels of the military,”
he said. “It’s the only branch of the government
that goes out of its way to fire gays and lesbians.”

While Petrie, who works for the Fine
Arts Museums of San Francisco, was at the academy in
the late 1980s, he did his best to hide his sexuality,
he said.

That meant not hanging out with other
midshipmen he knew or suspected were gay. “By associating
with them, you were opening yourself to scrutiny,”
he said. “I took no chances.”

He skipped most academy dances, not
wanting to have to bring someone to pose as his girlfriend.
Petrie, who was nationally ranked as a gymnast, spent
most of his time in the gym or library.

By the time he graduated in 1989,
“I knew what I had to do to hide my second life,”
he said.

When Louis Feuchtbaum, a 1986 academy
graduate, arrived in Annapolis, he wasn’t sure he was
gay. “I was still entertaining the fantasy that
it was something I’d grow out of,” he said. Being
at the academy was the fulfillment “of a lifelong
dream,” he said, and he didn’t want anything to
jeopardize it.

But he soon could tell he was different
from most of his classmates, and recognition of his
sexuality made him feel isolated and afraid. The last
thing he wanted was to be found out.

So he found ways to hide his orientation.

“There was always the feeling
that no matter where I was, the academy was looking
over my shoulder,” said Feuchtbaum, 41 and a Los
Angeles lawyer. “I worried that I’d be found out.”

Now, he and the other members of the
proposed Castro Chapter fear no more.