Gay Rights Group Protests Military Service Policy

For former Midshipman Tommie Watkins, Friday's visit to the Naval Academy (search) in Annapolis was a triumphant homecoming. He visited with old friends, saw some of his old haunts, and didn't even get arrested.

Watkins was part of a group of about 40 protestors from Soul Force, a Virginia-based gay rights group, who went to the academy despite threats of arrest to protest the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

That policy, in force since the early 1990s, bans openly gay members from serving in the military, and it led to Watkins' expulsion from the Academy in 1997, despite being an accomplished student and president of his class. He said he took part in the protest to serve as an example to current students, and to the Navy.

"This is where I learned my values," Watkins said. "The Navy has to practice what it preaches. It takes honor and courage for someone to stand up and be who they are."

This was the second of the group's "Equality Ride" protests. The first took place in April at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (search) in Lynchburg, Va. Soul Force founder Mel Smith said they plan a series of protests at military academies and religious colleges next spring.

Academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons would not comment on the Navy's policies on homosexuals in the service, but said the academy complies with Department of Defense policy.

In a statement issued Thursday, Gibbons said that "no protest, gathering or discussions with midshipmen will be allowed on Academy grounds" and a letter from Academy Deputy Superintendent Capt. Helen Dunn to Soul Force warned that coming to the academy to protest or engage midshipmen might "subject you to arrest and prosecution by the appropriate federal authorities.

Many protestors came expecting to be arrested, but were allowed to pass peaceably onto the campus.

John Williams, 21, drove for hours from Virginia Tech to attend the protest. Earlier this year, Williams came out to his friends and family. He said he understood what gay recruits might go through.

"You ask any gay person who's come out of the closet - it's a huge relief," He said. "It's one of the most liberating experiences - scary, but liberating - it's like a huge weight's been lifted."

The group gathered outside the gates to the academy in brightly colored "Equality Ride" T-shirts before entering the grounds. Gibbons said no change was made in the academy's policy and protestors were allowed to enter because they identified themselves as visitors and on the condition that they not "demonstrate, protest or advocate."

After lunch at the Drydock restaurant, a public eatery on Academy grounds, the group dispersed to wander the campus and meet the students. Jacob Reitan, the organizer of the event cautioned fellow protestors to avoid confrontation.

"We're going to say 'Hi, how are you' and that's all," Reitan said. "It's just a day at the Academy and we're just going to be out and gay."

Reitan and others stood in the main pathways between campus buildings as classes let out, greeting students with an outstretched hand and a smile.

"How you doing? My name is Jake," he repeated to a swiftly moving stream of midshipmen in black uniforms and distinctive white hats.

Most returned the handshake, a few refused, and some stopped to chat with protestors, who were careful to watch their words in front of a hovering crowd of Academy staff.

One student asked a group of protestors why they were there. As the protestor responded, officers from the Naval District Washington police force separated the student, an isolated incident Gibbons said was the result of a "miscommunication."

"It was a great day," Reitan said, "and I'm just thrilled how it turned out."

Watkins, now an Episcopal clergyman who works promoting AIDS treatment in black and Hispanic communities in Florida, pointed out Academy landmarks as he walked through the halls and pathways he left in 1997.

"It's beautiful to be back," he said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.