At West Point, Hidden Gay Cadets Put in Spotlight

From today’s NYT:

Code words, secret societies, covert meetings, fake identities:
these are tools that a certain set of cadets learn here at the
United States Military Academy at West Point.

These cadets are not spies or moles. They are gay, and they exist
largely in the shadows of this granite institution known for
producing presidents and generals, where staying closeted is
essential to avoid discharge under the military’s “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy.

“The most important thing I’ve learned here is how to be a good
actor,” said one gay male cadet, who grew up in Philadelphia and
is in his fourth year at the academy.

The resignation this month of Katherine Miller, a top cadet who
blogged anonymously about her lesbianism, has turned a spotlight on
the hidden gay culture here and revived debate on campus about
“don’t ask, don’t tell,” at a time when Washington is also
focused on the issue.

Ms. Miller, who wrote under the name “Private Second Class
Citizen” about enduring gay slurs and faking a heterosexual
dating history, is transferring to Yale University this fall and
has become something of a media celebrity, appearing on “The
Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC and on ABC News.

Interviews with three gay cadets, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because revealing their identities could result in
expulsion, as well as conversations with Ms. Miller and several gay
alumni, painted a portrait of a vibrant, if tiny, gay underground
at West Point. The hiding begins on Day 1: new cadets must sign a
document acknowledging that revealing one’s homosexuality can
lead to discharge, as can demonstrating “a propensity to engage
in homosexual acts.”

In 1996, three female cadets resigned after West Point officials
found a diary belonging to one of them that revealed their sexual
orientation. In 2002, the academy discharged a cadet after his
profile was discovered on a gay Web site. Ms. Miller, whose blog
began in April but apparently eluded academy officials, said she
quit voluntarily by submitting a letter revealing her

Asked about gay culture at West Point, Lt. Col. Brian Tribus, the
academy’s director of public affairs, issued a statement saying
that the school “will continue to apply the law as it is
obligated to do,” but also noting that cadets must take military
ethics classes that include “topics about unconditional positive
respect for others.”

For gay cadets, repressing their sexuality is just one part of
adapting to West Point, where life is regimented and lived mostly
in uniform. Romance of any kind can be difficult: the 4,400 cadets,
who live in one complex of large barracks and eat together at huge
weekday breakfasts and lunches in Washington Hall, are allowed to
date but not to kiss or hold hands while in uniform. “It’s like
living in a snow globe,” said one lesbian cadet, who is in her
third year.

But she and others said the lack of social freedom only primed the
active social grapevine at the academy. They said that they knew at
least 20 lesbian cadets (West Point is about 15 percent female),
and that when a friend recently drew a diagram showing who had had
relationships with whom, it revealed a tight web.

Trying to divine other lesbians takes “really finely tuned
gaydar,” said another lesbian cadet, who is a senior, or
“firstie.” There are code words and test phrases: “Are you
family?” refers to inclusion in the lesbian sisterhood. Or cadets
might throw out references to the television show “The L Word”
to gauge the response.

An encounter during military maneuvers might result in flirtatious
Facebook messaging back in the barracks. Those who earn weekend
passes might make late-night runs to gay bars in Manhattan, about
50 miles away, or to gay parties on nearby college campuses, often
with students they met through intercollegiate sports.

The two lesbian cadets described all this at 9 o’clock one night
last week at Jefferson Library, amid dozens of classmates dressed
in immaculately pressed gray uniforms, sitting up straight and
studying textbooks. Both said they had been openly gay in high
school but found gay socializing nearly impossible during the
strict first year at West Point, then began to confide in a tight
group of loyal friends as liberties increased.

“Anyone you meet here,” the senior female cadet said, “you
have to assess their personality very closely, and see if you can
trust them.”

She said she wore baggy clothing when going to a gay club in the
city, but tighter garments — to “dress straight,” as she put
it — when heading to the Firstie Club on campus. She and others
also mask their orientation by using nonchalant greetings with
other lesbians and feigning attraction for men. And, inevitably,
they stay silent amid slurs and slights.

“I had a roommate who told me, ‘Whenever I see two gay people
walking down the street, it makes me want to throw up,’ ” the
senior female cadet said. “I was like, ‘Little do you know,
I’m gay.’ ”

Even fending off advances from male cadets can create problems.
“You can’t say, ‘Sorry guys, I’m gay,’ ” the senior
said. “And if I say, ‘I have a boyfriend,’ I’m breaking the
honor code.” Breaching the Cadet Honor Code — “a cadet will
not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do” — can result in
serious discipline.

The male cadet in his fourth year said he had had sexual
relationships with several other men at the academy. Last year, he
fell for a guy at a gay bar in Manhattan who, to the surprise of
both of them, turned out to be a classmate.

Back on campus, they enjoyed and suffered through a seven-month
relationship on the “down low,” he said. They might share a
meal at Grant Hall, but if they passed each other in company, they
would simply nod hello or offer a casual back-slap. They did not
attend the year-end formal dance together.

“I went alone and told the other guys my girlfriend from home had
flight delays,” said the senior, who goes nightly to a deserted
parking lot to make personal phone calls, for fear of tipping off
his straight roommates.

Ms. Miller, 20, a sociology major from Findlay, Ohio, said she
decided to leave West Point after two years because she grew tired
of hiding.

“It was a whirlpool of lies — I was violating the honor code
every time I socialized,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Miller, who ranked 17th in her West Point class, wrote in her
Aug. 9 resignation letter: “I have lied to my classmates and
compromised my integrity and my identity by adhering to existing
military policy. I am unwilling to suppress an entire portion of my
identity any longer.”

Becky Kanis, a 1991 West Point graduate and chairwoman of the group
Knights Out, which offers guidance to gay West Point cadets, said
Ms. Miller’s resignation provided a morale boost to gay cadets by
alerting the public to the “shared adversity” they endured in
having to mask their sexual orientation.

Ms. Kanis, a former Army captain who now lives in Los Angeles and
works with a social services organization, Common Ground, said that
her own sexual orientation was investigated twice during her years
at West Point — friends interrogated, lockbox searched — and
that gay cadets often spoke in code, using genderless pronouns, for
example, when talking about significant others. “You have to
operate in a ‘shush network,’ ” she said.

But it all “came in handy,” Ms. Kanis said, when she began
doing intelligence work in the Army. “I was used to having a
cover for my personal life,” she said. “Living closeted is
excellent training for intelligence jobs. You’re always
fine-tuning who you can talk to about what.”