Gay Rights Activists Protest at U.S. Naval Academy

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005; 3:42 PM

Acting more like tourists than demonstrators, about 50 gay rights activists strolled the soggy grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy today to protest the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Academy officials initially threatened to arrest them if they tried to promote their cause on campus. But after organizers agreed not to talk about gay issues to midshipmen, officials let them roam freely.

"It's so much more than what I thought we'd get, so I'm thrilled," rally organizer Jacob Reitan said.

The protesters wore bright pastel t-shirts printed with the words, "Equality Ride," which organizers have dubbed the roving protest. The Naval Academy was the second stop in what organizers hope will be a nationwide bus tour to visit college campuses where homosexuality is either prohibited or discouraged.The rally began with a few tense moments. The protesters, mostly students from the Washington area, held hands forming a line along the brick wall outside the academy's main gate. After a brief news conference, they walked single file through the gate. Reitan was first and, met by two Marine guards, he gave his name and showed his driver's license.

One guard asked if he was there with the protest.

"No, I'm not," he said. "We are not protesting. We're here to have a discussion and dialogue and we're here to be visitors like any other visitors to the academy."

Earlier this week, the academy's deputy superintendent, Helen F. Dunn, warned the protesters to stay off academy grounds.

"Be advised, that accessing the Academy grounds for the purpose of protesting or engaging midshipmen, faculty and staff, may subject you to arrest and prosecution," she said in a letter dated Tuesday.

But after a few moments of discussion at the gate today, the guards let Reitan and the rest through. A horde of television cameras and reporters followed close behind. Academy officials insist they did not back down from the arrest threat but that organizers agreed to their terms.

"They came to the gate, they were asked what their intention was and they said they were there as private citizens, and that's when the decision was made to the let them aboard," said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

Introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, "don't ask, don't tell" allows gay men and lesbians to serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation private. More than 9,500 service members have been discharged under the statute, according to the Government Accountability Office. Today's protesters included one person drummed out of the Navy for being gay and another who was expelled from the academy.

After eating lunch at the academy's Drydock restaurant which is open to visitors, the activists broke into small groups and scattered across the campus, visiting the bookstore and other public buildings while most of the midshipmen were in class.

At 2 p.m., as classes let out, the activists lined up in the square outside the midshipmen's dormitory known as Bancroft Hall and shook hands with them as they walked by. The protesters left minutes later.

"Everything ended peacefully. We shook a lot of hands and introduced ourselves, and I think we left an indelible impression on a lot of people at the academy," Reitan said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company