The oldest private military college in the United States is about to get doubly fabulous: Next week, Norwich University in Northfield will celebrate its first-ever "Pride Week" from March 26 to 31. The schedule of queer-tastic festivities includes a keynote address by Army Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, as well as remarks by Gov. Peter Shumlin at Norwich's first Queer Prom on Saturday, March 31. And, in keeping with the fine military tradition of not just opening doors but kicking them down, NU's Pride Week will also feature a tie dye t-shirt-making event, a "Free Love Dance" and a "Condom Olympics." What's next — celebratory bong hits with a brigadier general?
Actually, it's not too surprising that after decades of being padlocked, the military's largest closet is about to get a thorough airing out. As recently as three years ago, hosting a gay pride event — or establishing a gay and lesbian support group — on campus would have been not only unthinkable but possibly a career-ender for Norwich students, many of whom go on to serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.
The federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Clinton. The law officially recognized the service and sacrifice of tens of thousands of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military by ordering them to stop being so gay, at least in the presence of straight people and others in uniform, under penalty of a dishonorable discharge.
DADT finally ended on September 20, 2011 — the same day that Norwich become the first military college in the country to host an LGBT group on its campus. That, too, wasn't uncharacteristic of Norwich, which has a long tradition of military firsts, including being the founding place of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and the first military college in the nation to admit women and African Americans into its corps of cadets.
Joshua Fontanez is president of the Norwich University Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Allies Club (LGBTQA) and a senior member of the corps of cadets. According to Fontanez, an NU senior, this isn't the first time Norwich students tried forming an LGBT club. Efforts were launched back in 1996 and again in early 2000, with the understanding that Norwich, as a private military academy, also serves civilians who don't plan to enter the military and thus were unaffected by DADT. Still, those efforts went nowhere.
Fontanez, who was raised in Browns Mills, N.J. not far from Fort DIx, says he always wanted to join the military "even before I knew what sexual orientation was." Even after he became aware of his own sexuality and its conflict with DADT, he still planned to join the Army after college.
"That was a sacrifice I was willing to make," says Fontanez, who enters the Army infantry in May as a second lieutenant. "I was willing to be closeted to serve my country in the military."
Today, Norwich's LGBTQA Club has 30 to 35 regular attendees at its meetings, which are held in a very public place — a student union conference room with glass walls. Adds Fontanez, "We didn’t want that high school mentality where we have a club but no one knows where it meets and it's all behind closed doors."
Fontanez, who only came out to his family and friends about his homosexuality this academic year, still encounters some "pushback" on campus. Overall, however, he says the campus is very accepting of the group and he emphasizes that the administration, faculty and staff are "extremely supportive" of Pride Week and are lending it both their financial and technical support.
Nevertheless, he says, "There are still a lot of stereotypes on campus [such as] a lesbian has to be a butch woman and a gay man has to be effeminate."
Asked about the Pride Week happenings, including the Condom Olympics, Fontanez calls it "the most talked about event on campus" and "a fun way to learn about contraceptives and safe sex. No one wants to sit down and watch a PowerPoint presentation on what a dental dam is or what lubes not to use."
So true. But a few words of advice to first-time condom olympiads: Remember to stretch out thoroughly, stay hydrated, avoid doping and stand up straight and salute when the flag goes up the pole.