When Joshua Fontanez began training as a cadet at Norwich University in 2008, he kept silent about his sexuality for fear of being expelled from the military school's Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Now after the repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, a gay pride group he helped found is staging a "Queer Prom" and a "Condom Olympics" as part of the first gay pride week at any of the nation's public and private military academies. Events kicked off on Monday.
"It really wasn't talked about," said the 22-year-old Fontanez as he stood before a rainbow flag and an information booth for the Vermont school's club that is aimed at lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, those who are questioning their sexuality, and their supporters.
"'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was not a topic to discuss," he said. "Now we have this change."
The groups have sprouted up at academies in the wake of the repeal six months ago, decades after similar groups first appeared at civilian universities.
About 60 gay and straight cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut have formed the Spectrum Diversity Council, while others at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado have applied to form similar clubs.
Cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and two prominent state military schools, Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, have not formed such clubs, though all three have gay alumni groups.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993, lifted a ban on gays serving in the military but said gay service members could not talk openly about their sexuality.
Chip Hall, a senior at the Coast Guard Academy, said the clubs that are open now had their roots in an underground network of Facebook and online groups for gay military cadets that formed before the repeal.
Hall said on Saturday he plans to don his dress uniform and bring his tuxedo-clad boyfriend to the academy's Castle Ball.
It is a far cry from his freshman year, when talking about his sexuality would have resulted in being expelled from school.
"I didn't know any gay people at the academy. It was pretty lonely," he said. "On top of that, being a freshman at a service academy is really very difficult. Now it's the opposite. All my friends know."
Hall's classmate Kelli Normoyle said she considered quitting the school several times but is now set to graduate this spring and become a commissioned officer.
"I was tired of having to lie," she said.
Richard Schneider, the president of Norwich and a retired rear admiral in the Coast Guard Reserve, said a gay classmate at the Coast Guard Academy in the 1960s had been thrown out of school "after having been found in a compromising position."
Today's group has gotten some resistance within the student body, but much of the criticism has come from alumni, he said.
The school, which has about 1,300 military cadets and 1,100 civilian students, has received about 200 emails from alumni in response to the group. Most have been critical, particularly of Fontanez naming the group's social the "Queer Prom," he said.
"It's very symbolic and it's kind of in your face, but we're an educational institution, and I want them to have a respectful dialogue," Schneider said. "My alums have to get used to it, and some of them are just going to have to get over it."
Copyright@ Thompson Reuters 2012