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    Recent Naval Reunion Opened Emotional Wounds Created by Past Homophobic, Sexist Policies

    zoeHave you ever gone to one of your high school or college reunions? For some of you, school was a great experience, where you made great friends, and so now you look forward to the opportunity to reconnect with them and recount the good old days. For many, such as myself, there are classmates you’d really like to see, and others—not so much. And for some, the memories can be so painful you have stayed away, and have never attended a reunion or revisited the campus since you left. Attending a reunion is like opening up a time capsule and replaying records you haven’t heard in a long time. Some forgotten songs are sweet and fun to dance to, while others are sad and even scratched, or broken.

    That was my experience this past weekend as I flew back to Annapolis, MD, for a reunion of women alumnae from the United States Naval Academy (USNA). It was a celebration of “40 Years of Women At USNA,” including a women’s leadership conference, a memorial service honoring our fallen alumnae, a reception, a tailgate party and a special presentation at halftime of the Navy-UConn football game. Several hundred women came from across the globe to attend (New Zealand was the furthest journey, I heard), representing every class from 1980 to 2020. It is a unique sorority; only 4,600 women have graduated from the Naval Academy since 1980, an average of less than 130 per year. The class of ‘80 graduated a mere 55 women, less than 6% of a graduating class just shy of 1,000. We were outnumbered by our male classmates by a ratio of 13:1 or more in these early classes.

    Women were at the academies because, in 1975, President Ford signed Public Law 94-106, requiring the services to open the hallowed halls of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy to women. This happened with much bellyaching and shouts of disapproval from members of Congress, the Pentagon and heretofore all male alumni of the service academies. In the fall of 1976, female cadets began their education and military orientation, as the “Class of ‘80” became the first coed class.

    When those first service academy classes graduated in 1980, of the 327 women who began, only 217 graduated. One out of three did not make it to graduation day.

    The number of women accepted in each class is limited by the opportunities for them in the Navy and Marine Corps upon graduation. In the 80s, women were not allowed to serve on combatant ships or to fly combatant aircraft, and were banned from submarines and most Marine Corps occupational specialties. Most women graduates therefore went into staff corps roles, such as supply, or restricted line jobs in intelligence, cryptology or administration.

    For male graduates, they were required to serve in a combat role unless they were physically disqualified. This set up a separate and unequal path for women from their male classmates, and the men resented the fact that women were getting all the benefit (full ride scholarship) without the same risk upon graduation. As women at the Naval Academy, we were reminded on an almost daily basis that each of us was “taking up a seat” that should be used for a true warrior, a man who would fight in combat. It didn’t help that the mission of the Naval Academy, as it was stated back then, was: “To prepare midshipmen morally, mentally and physically for careers as line (i.e. combat) officers in the naval service.” If we weren’t going to serve as combat line officers upon graduation, then why were we there?

    Those who attended Annapolis in the late 70s and early 80s were reminded on a daily basis that we were not wanted. One of the most damaging events was in 1979, when James H. Webb published a provocative essay opposing the integration of women at the Naval Academy titled “Women Can’t Fight.” Webb was an instructor at the Naval Academy when he wrote the article for Washingtonian magazine that was critical of women in combat and of them attending the service academies. The article referred to the dorm at the Naval Academy that housed 4,000 men and 300 women as “a horny woman’s dream.” James Webb went on to become Secretary of the Navy and a U.S. Senator from Virginia.

    For the women in the dorm, the upperclassmen referenced this article and its arguments constantly. They used it as a weapon in their efforts to get women to quit. It is not a coincidence that the class of 1983, i.e., those who were freshmen (plebes) when this article came out, had the highest women attrition rate of any class these past 40 years.

    One of the most successful tactics to get women to leave was to accuse them of being lesbian. This is before the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy when anyone could ask you anything, and the Naval Investigative Service (NIS as it was called, before it became NCIS) would actively investigate any lead that a midshipman was gay or lesbian. This resulted in numerous witch hunts to ferret out lesbians. I had heard (and seen) some of these investigations over the years, but at this past weekend’s reunion, I heard story after story about how they had impacted these young women.

    I heard from those investigated, those kicked out, and those who were asked to provide evidence and testimony against fellow teammates or roommates. I was reminded how young we all were, 18, 19, and 20-year-olds losing their scholarships and being sent home in shame. Or, being interrogated for six hours without legal counsel. Or, being asked to resign under threat that friends and teammates would be brought under investigation if they did not cooperate.

    These young women were forced to balance conflicting rules at the academy. First is the Honor Concept, stating that “a midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal.” The other is that you don’t “bilge” (put someone down, throw them under the bus) your shipmate. You had to choose between telling the truth and harming other women. Lives were forever altered in these shakedowns, and women were turned against one another out of fear. As you can imagine, this created deep conflict, pain and grudges.

    The amazing thing about this past weekend, and why I am writing about it, is how I witnessed these women reunite. Some women had not been back to the campus in over 30 years. The memories were too painful. Some had been harboring accusations and assumptions for dozens of years that weren’t completely accurate. The reunion provided the opportunity to confront, explain, share the impacts, apologize, and to forgive one another. It was a great reminder of the power of forgiveness and the burden it unloads.

    Does this mean you should attend your school reunions? I wouldn’t say that is my conclusion. But I do believe that when you are in the right place and are able to return and face some of the history that comes with experience, it can be a powerful and cathartic moment. It was for me.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and as an elected Delegate for the Democratic National Convention. She is a San Francisco Library Commissioner and is the former First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.