On the Gaydar
Pacific Grove native Chip Hall founds first ever LGBQ student club of its kind – in the military.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
In a job that demands as much togetherness as any – serving in the country’s armed forces – Chip Hall felt coldly alone.
Until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in September 2011, federal service members were expected to keep their sexual orientation to themselves or face expulsion from their institution.
For recent U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate and Pacific Grove High alum Hall, the threat of being thrown out pushed his homosexuality into the dark. Before departing for the academy in 2008, Hall revealed his orientation to a few friends. But expressing his sexuality to other academy cadets felt too risky.
“My first year at the academy, I didn’t know any other gay cadets and only came out to another cadet in March of 2009,” he says. “To say the least, I felt a little lonely.”
The following month, Hall helped organize the Coast Guard Academy’s observance of National Day of Silence, a movement started in 1996 where students on high school and college campuses take a day-long vow of silence, typically passing out cards explaining why they’re not saying anything: to peacefully protest anti-LGBT bullying in schools and raise awareness, using silence to mirror the lonely reality of being discouraged to discuss anything other than hetero habits.
The USCGA is currently the only federal service academy that takes part in the observance. But when Hall and his group carried it out in 2009, DADT was still very much in effect. In the interim, the threat of disenrollment was a constant plague. “Anytime relationships came up in conversation,” he says, “the inability to express myself weighed a little heavier on me.”
After a cadet was kicked out in 2008 for mentioning his orientation, that fear grew. “No one was out, and everyone was very cautious with coming out to other cadets,” Hall recalls.
During a junior year exchange at the U.S. Naval Academy, Hall met alumni involved in USNA Out, an organization committed to serving as positive role models for members of the then-underground gay military community. Exposure to openly out former service members served as inspiration to jumpstart his efforts and forge connections with fellow gay and lesbian cadets.
“It opened my eyes to an underground network I didn’t know existed,” Hall says. “Building a support network for LGBQ cadets is really the entire reason I got involved.”
In February 2011, Hall and his peers began navigating the charter process for a gay/straight alliance called Spectrum. After the repeal of DADT, the club was approved in December 2011, providing a permanent support group for the LGBT community – albeit with revisions. Command refused to accept the transgender inclusion in the charter. “T” transformed quietly to a “Q” for cadets questioning their sexuality or gender.
“It’s upsetting that it had to be that way,” Hall says, “because I knew of transgender service members who still couldn’t be themselves.” But Hall envisions the fight to liberate transgender service members as the next battle.
Plenty of challenges await. Despite the rule changes, Hall recalls only one service member coming out between the repeal and his graduation this May. But the club remains the first of its kind in any U.S. federal service institution; in January, Spectrum held its first meeting with an attendance of about 60 gay and straight cadets (out of the 1,000 total at the institution). Same-sex couples were allowed to attend the Castle Ball, a senior graduation dance, and five same-sex couples report no negative backlash.
“People thought it was awesome that we were there together,” Hall says.
Spectrum held a Local Leaders Panel in spring featuring the openly gay mayor of New London, Conn., a gay pastor from the Unitarian Church and the New London-based Coast Guard Academy’s straight Superintendent Sandra Stosz speaking to cadets about leadership and diversity. The Navy, Army and Air Force have founded similar clubs under the Spectrum name and a collective conference between the service academies is planned for the school year.
Currently, Ensign Chip Hall is stationed in Puerto Rico aboard the USCGC Cushing as a deck officer. With a bachelor’s in operations research and computer analysis, he’s trained to model reality using math, solve real-world problems with statistics and make tactical decisions. But it’s his experience trailblazing for tolerance that he feels best prepared him to map his future.