A Vermont military college that held what’s believed to be the nation’s first gay pride week on a military campus is refocusing the mission of its gay and lesbian club after some alumni were upset that it held a "condom Olympics" and "queer prom."
Norwich University President Richard Schneider said Tuesday that the administration should have had more oversight of the activities of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Allies club – formed after the end of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" rule – and focused more on education and ensuring that gay and lesbian students feel comfortable, supported and safe at college.
He isn’t backing away from Norwich’s commitment to ensure that gay and lesbian students are fully and openly integrated into school life and eventually the U.S. military.
"My responsibility is to get them ready to serve in the United States military or in the private sector. They’re worried that by letting them do those things and calling them those things, that’s not preparing them properly for what life as an adult is like," Schneider said, referring to the alumni who were upset. "We are not going to see condom Olympics held by the Army. So why are we teaching future second lieutenants that?"
Schneider said he recognized the need to teach students about safe-sex practices, but such activities would be focused on all students, not just members of the LGBTQA club.
Club President Joshua Fontanez said he was unaware of Schneider’s plan to change the focus of the club, but he welcomed an expanded emphasis on the need for safe-sex education. He said he was prepared for the controversy that followed pride week.
"I went in fully knowing what our goal was, understanding that growth is not always easy. With social change comes struggle," said the senior from Browns Mills, N.J. "The challenges that we are facing through pride week is the same challenges that the university was facing when they first admitted African-Americans (and) when they first admitted women."
Last month, Norwich highlighted that it was holding the first gay pride week at a military college. The six days of events were capped by what was billed as the "queer prom," which was attended by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Other events included seminars on bullying, safe sex and HIV testing and discussions with veterans.
But within hours of news of the gay pride events being held, Norwich began to hear from alumni, many of whom were upset – some by the activities themselves and others at the way the university handled the events.
"I had no problem with the formation of the club," said U.S. Navy Capt. Christopher Misner, a 1990 graduate and past president of the Norwich alumni organization who is now serving at the Pentagon.
He had two complaints: One was what he called the emphasis on "the tawdry details."
"The other one was, sort of, an initial response toward the club leadership that I thought maybe showed a lack of judgment, a little bit of irresponsibility, of how they went from being a part of the university family now to having a pride week," Misner said. "They kind of went from idle to full throttle very quickly."
Schneider traveled Monday to the Boston area, where he met with alumni upset by the publicity the formation of the club had brought to Norwich and how they learned of the club’s activities, through news reports and social media. He plans to hold more events Friday in the Washington area.
He estimated he’d heard from 5 percent of the school’s 18,000 alumni and the messages were split, with about 60 percent favoring the club and 40 percent opposed.
"I never anticipated the way the press would run with the story and we never really experienced the power of social media before and how quickly stuff gets out," Schneider said.
He said he still hears from graduates from a half-century or more ago who were upset when a former president banned fraternities from Norwich. Others were upset when Schneider brought civilian students to campus where they lived among the military students in the Corps of Cadets.
The military changed in September when "don’t ask, don’t tell" was repealed, Schneider said.
"There are some guys who will go to their graves saying that this isn’t right. There are others that have made the change and embraced it. They know it’s a lawful order. In the United States military we are taught to obey lawful orders or resign."
Fontanez, the LGBTQA club president, said that overall the reaction to Norwich’s pride week was positive.
"This touched the lives of so many people it’s unbelievable," he said. "The positive news articles, the positive emails, the positive international reaction was so much more, that it outweighs the negative."