WEST POINT, N.Y. — Code words, secret societies, covert meetings, fake identities: these are tools that a certain set of cadets learn here at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
These cadets are not spies or moles. They are gay, and they exist largely in the shadows of this granite institution known for producing presidents and generals, where staying closeted is essential to avoid discharge under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“The most important thing I’ve learned here is how to be a good actor,” said one gay male cadet, who grew up in Philadelphia and is in his fourth year at the academy.
The resignation this month of Katherine Miller, a top cadet who blogged anonymously about her lesbianism, has turned a spotlight on the hidden gay culture here and revived debate on campus about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” at a time when Washington is also focused on the issue.
Ms. Miller, who wrote under the name “Private Second Class Citizen” about enduring gay slurs and faking a heterosexual dating history, is transferring to Yale University this fall and has become something of a media celebrity, appearing on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC and on ABC News.
Interviews with three gay cadets, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because revealing their identities could result in expulsion, as well as conversations with Ms. Miller and several gay alumni, painted a portrait of a vibrant, if tiny, gay underground at West Point. The hiding begins on Day 1: new cadets must sign a document acknowledging that revealing one’s homosexuality can lead to discharge, as can demonstrating “a propensity to engage in homosexual acts.”
In 1996, three female cadets resigned after West Point officials found a diary belonging to one of them that revealed their sexual orientation. In 2002, the academy discharged a cadet after his profile was discovered on a gay Web site. Ms. Miller, whose blog began in April but apparently eluded academy officials, said she quit voluntarily by submitting a letter revealing her lesbianism.
Asked about gay culture at West Point, Lt. Col. Brian Tribus, the academy’s director of public affairs, issued a statement saying that the school “will continue to apply the law as it is obligated to do,” but also noting that cadets must take military ethics classes that include “topics about unconditional positive respect for others.”
For gay cadets, repressing their sexuality is just one part of adapting to West Point, where life is regimented and lived mostly in uniform. Romance of any kind can be difficult: the 4,400 cadets, who live in one complex of large barracks and eat together at huge weekday breakfasts and lunches in Washington Hall, are allowed to date but not to kiss or hold hands while in uniform. “It’s like living in a snow globe,” said one lesbian cadet, who is in her third year.
But she and others said the lack of social freedom only primed the active social grapevine at the academy. They said that they knew at least 20 lesbian cadets (West Point is about 15 percent female), and that when a friend recently drew a diagram showing who had had relationships with whom, it revealed a tight web.
Trying to divine other lesbians takes “really finely tuned gaydar,” said another lesbian cadet, who is a senior, or “firstie.” There are code words and test phrases: “Are you family?” refers to inclusion in the lesbian sisterhood. Or cadets might throw out references to the television show “The L Word” to gauge the response.
An encounter during military maneuvers might result in flirtatious Facebook messaging back in the barracks. Those who earn weekend passes might make late-night runs to gay bars in Manhattan, about 50 miles away, or to gay parties on nearby college campuses, often with students they met through intercollegiate sports.
The two lesbian cadets described all this at 9 o’clock one night last week at Jefferson Library, amid dozens of classmates dressed in immaculately pressed gray uniforms, sitting up straight and studying textbooks. Both said they had been openly gay in high school but found gay socializing nearly impossible during the strict first year at West Point, then began to confide in a tight group of loyal friends as liberties increased.
“Anyone you meet here,” the senior female cadet said, “you have to assess their personality very closely, and see if you can trust them.”
To continue reading this story in The New York Times, click here.