(CNN) — In the six months since the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, many of the most prestigious military institutions in the country are adding a student group to their club rosters that they had never seen before: gay pride groups.
For nearly 17 years, gay and lesbian soldiers were expected to deny their sexuality under threat of dismissal as part of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” With the repeal of the rule on September 20, 2011, a new era began for homosexual members of the armed forces.
But what about the young cadets preparing to enter their ranks, studying in the nation’s top military academies?
In December, a group of students at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, formed a group called the Spectrum Diversity Council, to serve as a gay-straight alliance on campus.
The night before “don’t ask, don’t tell” ended, cadets at Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military academy, held the first meeting of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Allies Club.
These clubs are school-sanctioned, and their numbers are growing, according to cadets and school officials.
Even at the United States Military Academy at West Point, cadets are forming their own Spectrum student group.
As one of the nation’s five federal service academies, The U.S. Coast Guard Academy follows the same rules as the U.S. military, and up until recently this meant “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a rule. Even before the repeal, First Class Cadets Kelli Normoyle and Chip Hall were among students at the academy who met with school officials to discuss what might happen if “don’t ask, don’t tell” were repealed.
“No one was allowed to ‘come out’ in the DADT Working Group,” Normoyle said, but it was an unspoken secret that many of the members of the group were gay.
Today, Normoyle and Hall are co-leaders of the Spectrum Diversity Council that boasts 60 to 65 members. They say the experience of going to the academy is one they would never trade, but they acknowledge that life is different since the repeal.
“It’s hard to separate the personal changes from 18 to 21 (years old), but the repeal of DADT was less like flipping a switch. It wasn’t like one day I’m hiding my sexuality and denying who I am and the next I’m out and proud. It was more like a continuum; I progressed through my own comfort with being gay,” Hall said.
“I had come out to friends my senior year in high school and wasn’t sure if I was ready to live under DADT,” Normoyle said. After a year at another school, she decided to go to the Coast Guard Academy after all.
“I knew the Coast Guard was what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go to the service academy. I wanted to show people that it didn’t matter if I was gay; I could just do my job and make friends. I thought I would put my personal life in the back seat.”
She found this easier said than done.
“I felt separated from my friends having to hide something that big, a part of my life,” she said. “We have an honor code at the school, and you practically had to lie to people when they asked if you’re dating anybody, if you had a boyfriend.”
Normoyle and Hall say the Coast Guard Academy administration has been very encouraging of their club, with Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the first female superintendent of the academy, a major supporter from the beginning, according to Hall.
Other cadets have been welcoming, too, Normoyle said.
“We’ve had nothing but positive experiences with our classmates. We had some people coming up and telling us they grew up having negative stereotypes of gay people, but said, ‘I know you two, I respect both of you, I’m trying to break those stereotypes.’ ”
From March 30 to April 4, the Coast Guard Academy will host Eclipse week, a tradition dating back 37 years to one of the first African-American cadet groups on campus. The week has turned into a diversity week of sorts, according to Hall. He said Spectrum plans to host a roundtable discussion with active-duty members of the Coast Guard on homosexuality in the service.
Hall and Normoyle received their orders last week and will graduate as full members of the Coast Guard at the end of the school year.
Norwich University, established in 1819, is a small but well-known private military college in Northfield, Vermont. As a private school, Norwich never had an official policy discriminating against gay cadets, but since the majority of students accept commissions in the military, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was always a presence.
“Prior to repeal, the facts of DADT served to keep any LGBTQA student quiet,” said Daphne Larkin, a spokeswoman for the university.
Dr. M.E. Kabay, a professor at Norwich University, is the faculty adviser to the Norwich Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Allies Club. He described how on the last night of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” cadets met in the school library for the first meeting of the club. Cadet organizer Josh Fontanez raised all the blinds of the club to symbolize openness to the community.