ANNAPOLIS, Md. - A gay and lesbian alumni group for graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy is welcoming the first midshipmen who will graduate after repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell."
Ninety-four people attended a dinner on Saturday that has been an annual event held by USNA Out since 2009. This year was different, however, because the repeal of the law increased the comfort level for students, said Brian Bender, USNA Out's board chairman. Under the law that was repealed in September, military personnel could be discharged for revealing they were gay.
"It's the first event where they were openly able to attend," Bender said.
Bender also said in an interview that this year was significant for the number of people who attended, as well as the presence of senior officers.
"They feel more comfortable attending these events, and it's great to see the increasing role that they're taking with mentorship," Bender said.
The group also announced a $2,500 donation to the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation.
"This year we saw a significant increase in midshipmen interest and participation, particularly from the graduating class," said Steve Hall, USNA's executive director and a 1975 academy graduate. He added there were twice as many seniors in attendance this year than last, something he directly attributed to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
The group says 31 midshipmen from all four classes and their guests attended the event, held at the Annapolis-area residence of a group member. Thirty-four members of USNA Out also attended. Sixteen of the midshipmen are seniors who will graduate on May 29. At the invitation of the students, Naval Academy faculty and staff members also attended, along with representatives of the Naval Academy Alumni Association.
At last year's event, 77 people attended, including seven who were graduating seniors.
USNA Out has 285 members, including 73 active duty alumni serving in the fleet.
"According to the feedback we have received from our midshipmen members, gay and lesbian midshipmen feel more comfortable and no longer must separate their personal identity from their professional identity," said Hall, who commanded two nuclear powered attack subs during his 20-year active duty career, in a statement released on the group's website.
Bender said group officials have found the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law to be occurring without incident for alumni on active duty and for academy midshipmen.
"Many midshipmen have shared with me stories wherein they or someone they knew came out to classmates and to members of their companies," said Bender, a 1993 academy graduate. "I am not aware that any have faced negative responses. In fact, some received very positive reactions from their heterosexual friends who were supportive of their decision."
USNA Out members have donated more than $100,000 in private contributions to the USNA Foundation, since 2005, the group said.
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