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 U.S. 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.
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 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 website. Miller, whose blog began in April but apparently eluded academy officials, said she quit voluntarily by submitting a letter revealing that she is a lesbian.
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 TV 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 New York, 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 p.m. one day 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."
She said she wore baggy clothing when going to a gay club in the city, but tighter garments — to "dress straight," as she put it — when heading to the Firstie’s Club on campus. She and others also mask their orientation by using nonchalant greetings with other lesbians and feigning attraction for men. And, inevitably, they stay silent amid slurs and slights.
"I had a roommate who told me, ‘Whenever I see two gay people walking down the street, it makes me want to throw up,"’ the senior female cadet said. "I was like, ‘Little do you know, I’m gay.’"
Even fending off advances from male cadets can create problems. "You can’t say, ‘Sorry guys, I’m gay,’" the senior said. "And if I say, ‘I have a boyfriend,’ I’m breaking the honor code." Breaching the Cadet Honor Code — "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do" — can result in serious discipline.
The male cadet in his fourth year said he had had sexual relationships with several other men at the academy. Last year, he fell for a guy at a gay bar in Manhattan who, to the surprise of both of them, turned out to be a classmate.
Back on campus, they enjoyed and suffered through a seven-month relationship on the "down low," he said. They might share a meal at Grant Hall, but if they passed each other in company, they would simply nod hello or offer a casual back-slap. They did not attend the year-end formal dance together.
"I went alone and told the other guys my girlfriend from home had flight delays," said the senior, who goes nightly to a deserted parking lot to make personal phone calls, for fear of tipping off his straight roommates.
Miller, 20, a sociology major from Findlay, Ohio, said she decided to leave West Point after two years because she grew tired of hiding.
"It was a whirlpool of lies — I was violating the honor code every time I socialized," she said in an interview.
Miller, who ranked 17th in her West Point class, wrote in her Aug. 9 resignation letter: "I have lied to my classmates and compromised my integrity and my identity by adhering to existing military policy. I am unwilling to suppress an entire portion of my identity any longer."
Becky Kanis, a 1991 West Point graduate and chairwoman of the group Knights Out, which offers guidance to gay West Point cadets, said Miller’s resignation provided a morale boost to gay cadets by alerting the public to the "shared adversity" they endured in having to mask their sexual orientation.
Kanis, a former Army captain who now lives in Los Angeles and works with a social services organization, Common Ground, said that her own sexual orientation was investigated twice during her years at West Point — friends interrogated, lockbox searched — and that gay cadets often spoke in code, using genderless pronouns, for example, when talking about significant others. "You have to operate in a ‘shush network,"’ she said.
But it all "came in handy," Kanis said, when she began doing intelligence work in the Army. "I was used to having a cover for my personal life," she said. "Living closeted is excellent training for intelligence jobs. You’re always fine-tuning who you can talk to about what."