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.