He was voted president of his class two years in a row at the U.S. Naval Academy, despite harboring a secret he says many of his classmates knew: He was gay. "They'd kid me about it and make jokes, but it didn't seem to bother them," said Tommie Watkins Jr.
But in 1997, just days from completing his junior year, Watkins was forced out after academy officials learned he was having a relationship with another midshipman. His dream of becoming a Navy pilot was over.
Watkins returned to the academy for the first time yesterday as part of a group of 50 gay rights activists who were there to protest the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"It's beautiful," said Watkins, now a minister in Miami, as he strolled along the brick paths that cut across the lawns. Reflecting on the military's assertion that allowing gays to serve openly in the military would be disruptive to other soldiers, he added: "No one harassed me; no one beat me up. They voted me class president, twice."
After an initial warning that they might be arrested if they protested on academy grounds, the activists entered the main gate in Annapolis peacefully. They spent the day wandering the soggy campus like ordinary tourists, save for their brightly colored T-shirts reading "Equality Ride," which organizers have dubbed "the roving protest." The Naval Academy was the second stop in what they hope will be a nationwide bus tour of college campuses where homosexuality is prohibited or discouraged.
Academy officials said they let the activists enter after they agreed not to discuss their views with midshipmen.
Deputy Superintendent Helen F. Dunn also sent an e-mail to all midshipmen, faculty and staff, asking them to avoid talking to the protesters.
"We ask that you carry out your normal routine on Friday, stay clear of our security personnel and the protesters, and to politely refer questions from media or the demonstrators to the Public Affairs Office," Dunn wrote.
Through a spokesman, Dunn denied interview requests yesterday. Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman, said of the e-mail: "We were not telling them they could not talk to the protesters. All we wanted to do with that e-mail was let them know what was going on, encourage them to refer questions to our office."
Introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, "don't ask, don't tell" allows gays 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. With the war in Iraq putting intense strain on U.S. forces, many in Congress have called for an end to the policy.
In March, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, seeking to lift the ban. The legislation is supported largely by Democrats, though a handful of GOP House members, including Maryland's Wayne T. Gilchrest, have signed on to the measure, which remains in the House.
"The government is saying you can serve in Iraq honorably, but when the war is over, we're going to kick you out," Watkins said, referring to the military's "stop-loss" orders, which have curtailed discharges while the war is on.
After eating lunch at the academy's Drydock cafe, 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, Bancroft Hall, and shook hands with them as they walked by.
The midshipmen were polite. Some stopped to listen briefly, then moved on.
"It's so much more than what I thought we'd get, so I'm thrilled," said rally organizer Jacob Reitan. "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."