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Gay West Point alumni seek end to "don't ask, don't tell"

Monday, April 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

NEW YORK — As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, Dan Choi faced an ethical dilemma.

The academy's honor code was clear, beginning "A cadet will not lie." Yet as a gay man, Choi felt bound by the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy to be untruthful about who he was.

Last month, six years after his graduation and two years after serving in Iraq, Choi came out — even though he remains an infantry officer in the Army National Guard.

His announcement in mid-March was part of the launch of Knights Out, the first association representing gay and lesbian alumni of West Point. Already, it has at least 50 members who have publicly identified themselves on the group's Web site.

Its stated mission is to advocate for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" so that gay people can serve openly in the military, and to help prepare the West Point community to be effective leaders after that policy change occurs.

Under the policy, which President Barack Obama says he wants to repeal after consultation with the Pentagon, the military does not ask recruits about their sexual orientation, while service members are banned from saying they are gay or engaging in homosexual activity.

"Forcing people to lie — it's absolutely a morally bankrupt idea," Choi said in a telephone interview from his home in Orange County, Calif.

The chair of Knights Out's board, Becky Kanis, has bitter memories of being investigated while at West Point on suspicion that she was a lesbian. She graduated in 1991 and served contentedly for nine years in the Signal Corps, but said she eventually grew tired of the need to deceive.

"I started to feel immature — I was too grown up to be lying about where I spent the weekend," she said.

Kanis now lives in New York City, working for an institute that combats homelessness.

She believes the end of "don't ask, don't tell" is imminent, and hopes Knights Out will be well positioned to serve after repeal as a resource on how the military can deal with gay/lesbian issues.

"We're uniquely in a position to bridge the knowledge gap," she said. "We're optimistic that we'll be able to work with the academy once the ban is lifted."

For now, Knights Out has no formal relationship with the academy or the West Point Association of Graduates, the main alumni association. The association's spokeswoman, Kim McDermott, says it cannot partner with an alumni group advocating for policy change.

Francis DeMaro, West Point's public affairs officer, said Knights Out members are welcome on the campus as individuals, but added that the academy doesn't affiliate with any alumni group except the Association of Graduates.

For now, Knights Out doesn't want to antagonize the graduate association or the academy with confrontational tactics.

"We've let them know we're out there," said Sue Fulton, Knights Out's communications director. "We've expressed that we want to open a dialogue."

Earlier this month, Kanis and Fulton attended a diversity conference at the academy. They did not seek to make an official presentation, but spoke informally to numerous participants and said they received positive feedback.

"Our group doesn't want to close any doors with West Point," said Fulton. "And West Point is very cognizant there's a fine line they walk with respect to the existing law, which makes any official interaction dicey."

Fulton said Knights Out is starting to prepare initiatives that could be implemented only when "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed — for example, helping to form a gay/straight alliance at the academy or dispatching some of its members to talk with commanding officers about their experiences.

Fulton, 50, graduated from the academy in 1980, part of the first class that included women. She served in the Signal Corps and left the service in 1986, after wearying — like Kanis — of being targeted with suspicion and threatened investigations.

"I was very discreet — I wasn't seeing anybody," Fulton said. "But I left because I wanted to be in a relationship and I realized that wasn't going to be possible in the military."

She now lives with her partner of 14 years in North Plainfield, N.J., and works for a pharmaceutical company.

Among Knights Out's "out" members, Choi is the only one still serving in the military — as an infantry platoon leader with New York State's Army National Guard.

After he came out in mid-March, and discussed that decision on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," he was unsure how things would go at his guard unit's next training session.

"No one talked about it for three or four days, and I thought 'No one knows,'" Choi said. "But at the end, a lot of the soldiers said they knew and they support me 100 percent. ... No one was uncomfortable."

Choi said he hopes to continue as platoon leader and thus far has received no warnings from any superiors for his decision to speak out about being gay.

At home, however, there are challenges.

"My dad is a Baptist minister — he's not had an easy time with this." Choi said.

Gay/lesbian alumni from the Naval Academy formed an association in 2003 called USNA Out, and a comparable Air Force Academy alumni group, Blue Alliance, was formed in 2007, but Knights Out has carved out a more focused political role for itself by depicting repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" as its central mission.

"President Obama has made it clear he intends to review and overturn DADT and end the wasteful policy which the country has been burdened with," said Paul Morris, a 1980 West Point graduate who co-founded Knights Out. "Now is the time for the Army and its oldest military academy to plan for this mission, and Knights Out stands ready to assist."


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