Life as a Citadel cadet is notoriously tough, with its four-year program of military training and disciplined schedules on top of regular academic activities. For those of us whose college life consisted of sleeping off our hangovers, a Citadel education sounds grueling. But El Cid's cadets are tough enough to take the pace, and a minority of those deal with the added pressure of keeping their homosexuality a secret.
Since 1993, the military has maintained a "don't ask, don't tell" policy whereby gays and lesbians can serve as long as they stay in the closet. Ten years after the policy began, alumnus Kevin Scott created the Citadel Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA), a group for gay cadets, graduates, and like-minded individuals to communicate and support each other.
"Before the group started, people were gathering every now and again for informal meetings and networking," says Scott, a 40-year-old anti-money laundry investigator for a large bank. "I noticed there was no structure to the meetings. That was my motivation to start it, to get everyone connected." Scott wasn't aware of any other military colleges or universities that recognized the gay and lesbian community, although GALA has since hooked up with students and grads from the Virginia Military Institute.
Scott attended El Cid with plans to make a career in military. The tribulations he went through to get his ring had little to do with his sexuality.
"There was a diversity you had to deal with on a daily basis," he recalls. "I formed strong bonds with my classmates. There was a sense of brotherhood. We helped each other to train, to study, even to make sure our shoes were shined properly. I wouldn't have been able to graduate without them."
Scott says he didn't encounter any intolerance. He says, "I was so busy performing my military duties and studying that I didn't have time to express my sexuality. I didn't let anything else affect my primary goal.
"There may have been folks who've had issues, but not over their sexuality. If outed, no one's been drummed out or harassed in my experience. They were pretty much ignored. Not even commented on."
Scott is fully aware that not every cadet had as good an experience as he did. "Some gay alumni feel like once they're out, they're not welcome," he says.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, Scott feels that the group has been lifesaving for some folks. He says, "They felt alone and estranged from the Citadel community. They thought they were the only gay cadet or alumni. They didn't see anything represented at school or in the military. They needed our support."
According to Scott, CitadelGALA has about 100 members with a steady trickle of newcomers. Cadets remain anonymous.
Chuck Maxwell, a 46-year-old alumnus who works for the Centers for Disease Control, joined this summer.
"The main thing I feel about the group is its nurturing and positive direction," Maxwell says. "It can enlighten minds in the Citadel by showing that there are gay people who represent the college very well."
It's an unofficial representation. GALA's a completely independent organization, yet it's one that Maxwell finds essential. "This is an organization for people who truly love their alma mater, connecting them with similar people who can understand these issues," he says. "It's a release valve for cadets who feel there's no one to approach in the Citadel to help them make it through."
Maxwell describes himself as a "double minority," black and gay. At the Citadel in the mid-'80s, he had a much tougher time than Kevin Scott. "In 1984, I saw one cadet railroaded out of his battalion because he was gay," says Maxwell. "They sent him out on a rod. I hid my homosexuality and overexcelled."
He sees CitadelGALA as a group that could grow as a network for graduates and cadets. The group already meets at least once a year during homecoming weekend, and members have participated in Outspoken Pride in Columbia in 2005 and a 2007 Don't Ask Don't Tell roundtable discussion in Charleston.
"At our gatherings, topics of debate range from questions about coming out to who won the latest Citadel football game," says Scott. "It's a great way to put faces to names."
It's also a way for homosexual cadets to come to terms with keeping a secret from their fellow cadets at a college that prides itself on the honesty of its students, and the stress that it causes. As far as Maxwell's concerned, that anxiety is unnecessarily. "We have no control over our sexuality. I didn't choose to be homosexual any more than being black," he says. "This country has to realize that one can operate in the military regardless of one's sexuality."
Maxwell cites Israel as an example of a country where gays are openly allowed in the armed forces. "Nobody messes with the Israelis," he adds. "It's a bad idea to piss off a fag."
Scott hopes the group will continue to gain new members and maintain a healthy message board. "Traditionally in South Carolina, the South and nation, the Citadel has strong leadership presence in everything it does," he says. "We'd like to continue that tradition with CitadelGALA."