In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, in response to a police raid and violence toward homosexuals at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, members of the gay community spontaneously began a series of demonstrations from the unjust actions now known as the Stonewall riots.
The Stonewall riots proved to be a tipping point and one of the most important events leading to the gay liberation movement in the years that followed.
The observance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month is celebrated each year during the month of June. The observance started as a single day but now runs through June to commemorate the events of June 1969 and the work of many in the gay community to achieve equal justice and equal opportunity for LGBTQ-Plus Americans.
The U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Corps of Cadets LGBT Pride Month observance titled “Pride in All who Serve,” took place April 23 at the Riverside Café in Eisenhower Hall and virtually on Microsoft Teams to include cadets who were going to be either graduated or doing some form of leadership detail or summer training this month.
“We’re observing this event today (April 23) to provide an opportunity to our cadet population before they depart … to recognize the wonderful diversity that makes up our community at large and within the Army ranks,” said now 2nd Lt. Johnathan-Scott (JD) Davidson, the emcee for the observance event.
Davidson introduced both speakers for the event: Class of 2023 Cadet Frankie Rivera and Maj Chad Plenge, the Center for Junior Officers operations officer at West Point.
Rivera was the first to take the microphone to speak to the audience about his experience as a member of the Spectrum club, an LGBTQ-Plus themed cadet club. He talked about why the Spectrum club matters at West Point and why “queer visibility and recognition is so important.”
“I think we’re all generally familiar with the history of LGBTQ-Plus service members in the military, starting with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ in 2011,” Rivera, a chemistry major, said. “This year is 10 years since that was repealed. Even though it allowed queer service members to be open about their sexuality, it did not outlaw discrimination at all and that’s the problem we still face today is discrimination of queer service members in a variety of forms.”
Rivera, who participates in the Spirit Band and is a member of the CrossFit Black and Gold team, spoke about those many discriminatory forms to include being told, “you aren’t masculine enough to serve or you’re too flamboyant for the military.”
“You are told you don’t fit the right image of a U.S. Soldier and, in some cases, being denied promotions and positions because of your sexuality,” Rivera said. “That is just not acceptable and that’s why we need more visibility and recognition at West Point and in the Army — and that’s why Spectrum matters for us here.”
Rivera said the mission of the Spectrum club is to provide a safe support network for cadets and allies, to include officers, while trying to bridge the gap between members of Spectrum with the rest of the Corps of Cadets. However, the first part is providing a safe social support network for gay members of the Corps of Cadets.
“What we try to do at Spectrum is have more social events to allow queer cadets to share their experiences, to build that community that we don’t get in classes, in the barracks or during general trainings because it just doesn’t come up in conversation naturally,” Rivera said. “I think when we allow Spectrum and allow that community to foster and grow, it makes a tighter bond among the LGBTQ-Plus community here. It makes (the) cadets better off now that they know they have a safe support network of other cadets who have that same experience as them.”
The second part of the Spectrum club, Rivera reiterated, was its trying to bridge the gap among queer service members, queer cadets and allies throughout the Corps of Cadets.
“At Spectrum, we’re not exclusive by any means, everyone is welcome throughout the Corps — cadets, staff and faculty,” Rivera said. “We want to share our experience with everybody else to let them know what it’s like to be queer here — the pros, the cons, the improvements, the sustainment, what’s working and what’s not. We want to spread the education throughout the Corps.”
Rivera said that Spectrum has been monumental to his experience at West Point as he was very anxious coming to the academy. He grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, which is right outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the talk of being gay is non-existent, especially in a military town.
“Coming to West Point, I was very anxious about how I would be perceived,” Rivera said. “I never had any examples of queer role models growing up, in the military, specifically.”
In becoming a member of the Spectrum club, Rivera has met many cadets and officers, like Maj. Plenge who showed him that it is possible to be successful, be a good cadet and an excellent officer while “balancing being gay and being a Soldier.”
“Spectrum has been one of those invaluable assets … I don’t think I could be here without that community,” Rivera said. “I commend Maj. Plenge and all the officers and cadets that came before me for paving the way to where we are today.
“I’m very proud to be a gay cadet,” he added. “I’m very proud to be in Spectrum and I encourage all of you to come out to a meeting … get to know each other and talk about our experiences together.”
Plenge, the officer-in-charge of the Spectrum club, followed Rivera at the microphone to get people into the thought process of where West Point and the Army are with dealing with the gay community within its ranks. Plenge wanted to empower people to ask questions and learn a little bit more about the gay community for the future, whether it’s at West Point or in the Army, and help make a difference in someone’s life.
However, Plenge began his speech with a couple of comments from people that included thoughts like, “It’s a part of your private life, so why do you need to show it? It’s only been a decade. You should be thankful you’re not getting kicked out,” or “The only reason Plenge wants to help with the Scuba team is because he wants to see cadets shirtless,” while also receiving anti-gay and anti-transgender memes. All these comments were sent by staff and faculty at West Point over the last four years.
Plenge asked to all in attendance and viewing on Microsoft Teams, “Is it a challenge here?” and he answered, “absolutely.” But he also said there has been progress made, but progress can’t be an excuse to stop. He also didn’t want to leave people with the perception that West Point and the Army is a horrible place to work because he said, “It’s not all bad.”
During his talk, he had Rivera walk around with a One Direction calendar as a prop to ask what the significance was for him. Attendees shouted out things like, “Taste in music,” “Stereotyping,” “Queerbaiting,” in terms of an all-boy band and how it may appeal in culture and associations to the gay community.
However, the calendar represented the year 2015 when he was in command of an organization in Germany. At the time, he was seeing someone and it was his first relationship with another person for any length of time.
It was April and he took a week of leave to return to the United States to go to Philadelphia and spend time with his significant other. While it was an amazing week, Plenge said, the day before he left, his partner said, “I think we should be over.” So, he made the miserable, six-hour flight back to Germany having his heart broken.
Unfortunately, his battalion commander on his return, within formation, asked him questions like, “How was your leave? And all sorts of questions. Plenge said he felt like he was dodging all his questions because it would require him to open up to who he is.
He would later go to his battalion commander’s office to speak and he opened up to him about being gay but left out the breakup that left him in tatters.
“His first question was how are you doing? … I wasn’t expecting that,” Plenge said. “He was like how are your parents doing with it? Well, it’s kind of rocky right now, our relationship isn’t great. A couple of family members don’t talk to me anymore.”
He asked more questions about the unit and such and ultimately asked, “What can we do to make it better? Especially if anyone gave him a problem that the commander would take care of it. The commander asked him many questions and continued to check on him periodically, but it proved to Plenge that the power of leadership can make a difference.
“For the first time in the Army, I felt like I could belong,” Plenge, a 2011 USMA graduate, said. “I didn’t even know where he landed on his views of gay rights, gay marriage, any of that, but I felt like I could belong there and be me for the first time in my military career – that was powerful.”
Over the next few years, a couple of leaders played a big part in Plenge assimilating easier into his career while eventually being openly gay. During a history-related conversation, retired Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, former History Department head, brought up something related to homosexuality in the military.
“It was in a very positive light. The first time I’ve ever had a leader bring it up where it wasn’t about an EO observance or an issue in an organization, it was unprompted and just part of normal conversation,” Plenge said. “It probably didn’t mean anything to him, he was just being himself but that mention was incredibly powerful. I felt I could be who I am at West Point because at that time no one here knew.”
Then Col. Ray Kimball, chief of Faculty Development, was the first boss of Plenge’s to take action to support him.
“He said whatever I need, if there are any issues, let him know and ‘I’ll knock down doors, I’ll knock down walls,’” Plenge said. “He said, ‘if you ever run into any roadblocks, let me know, I’ll use my rank to clear a path to make sure you have everything you need and that I could make the impact on others that they deserved,’ and that was truly remarkable.
“It showed me the true power of a leader … for the first time I felt what it was like to be supported and what it was like to have an amazing leader who truly cared about me. Absolutely phenomenal,” he added.
Plenge would direct his next discussion toward Honorable Living Day where a West Point officer who is about to take battalion command reached out and asked, “I don’t really know much about LGBT people, can you get some cadets together and can I ask some questions to learn from them and figure out how I can lead more effectively?”
“What’s amazing is that’s the first time I’ve ever had a leader ask that question,” Plenge said. “How can I be more inclusive? What can I do? And taking a bunch of notes. Truly amazing and so powerful to see that example.”
Plenge mentioned another Honorable Living Day aspect with the cadets in the Spectrum club, who operated a booth during a Wellness Week/Spring Fest event in April. He mentioned the smiles on the cadets’ faces, including Davidson, and how happy they were being themselves.
“I’ll be honest, it brought tears to my eyes to see that because I also see the real fear sometimes when cadets are struggling with — Do I come out? Do I tell somebody?” Plenge said. “The only other time I’ve seen that fear was in Afghanistan when we were being attacked. So, the same level of fear that people experience I see here frequently, but then to see this other thing where they felt like they could truly be themselves … that’s due to so many people in this room who set an amazing example and allow them to do that. That’s the greatest gift a leader can give is to allow someone to be themselves.”
Plenge continued to speak about leaders who reached out and gave their time and investment to truly impact a life or multiple lives.
“You don’t have to be a part of (the LGBTQ-Plus community) to make an impact,” Plenge said. “The people who made the biggest impact on me weren’t a part of that group. All they did was care. Simple actions repeated over and over can make a tremendous difference. I know it has for me and it has for so many cadets.”
He finished off by reading an email from a cadet that said, “Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t me then things would be easier. I always knew something was different about me. Maybe I still don’t know exactly what I am or maybe I do and I’m just afraid. Either way, I’m afraid. I’m so afraid I want to cry because what if me isn’t good enough? Tomorrow morning, I’ll drink some coffee and log into class. Right now, though, I need a hug.”
Plenge said, “If you listen to those words, that is somebody who is struggling.” He said that isn’t just one person, but many emails and conversations over the past four years at the academy.
He said the amazing thing is that cadet is not in the same place anymore and the transformation he has seen over the past year has been phenomenal. That cadet is comfortable in who they are and thriving in this environment now.
But the power of setting the example as a leader can help others in need and truly passes it forward for future leaders of character.
“If you leave nothing else (as a leader), just know that you can make an impact,” Plenge said. “Whether it’s the person next to you or another peer, you can touch a life and you may never know it. It wasn’t until years later, I told people that some of them made that much of an impact on me.
“The seeds that you sow you may never see grow,” he added. “It doesn’t mean you’re not making an impact.”
After the formal part of the Pride Month observance, there was a question-and-answer session. The questions delved deeper into many of Plenge’s experiences, how to make West Point better for the gay community, how to empathize with those who have been discriminated against, how to encourage future leaders to be themselves and the last question which took a deep dive into LGBTQ-Plus members who were kicked out of the Army or USMA graduates who may not have had the support they needed years ago and embracing them back into the fold when they once didn’t feel wanted by the Army or the academy.
“Even when I was a cadet, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ was in place, so I couldn’t be who I was,” Plenge said. “I couldn’t even explore that and it’s been less than 10 years that people have been allowed to be who they are on the LGB spectrum and then the transgender piece of that has been much more recent.”
West Point has become more visible recently when it comes to involving Pride Month posts on social media. One of the posts, that included featuring Davidson, on the LGBT community within the Corps of Cadets was the third-most liked Instagram post in 2020, behind only an R-Day and Graduation post. You add other various mediums that USMA graduates in the LGBTQ-Plus community have been observing, it all led to two transgender graduates returning to West Point to speak to cadets in the Spectrum club.
“It was the first time they were back here, being themselves,” Plenge said. “One of them had a few tears and said, ‘I never thought I could be back at West Point being who I am.’ Being a part of that moment was awesome. Part of it is wherever you are, encourage them to come back to see it’s different. We’ve made so much progress and while we still have a long way to go — we have made a ton of progress in the last decade.
“We have so many amazing cadets. I don’t know if I’d have the courage … the courage to be the first person ever posted on social media at West Point (for being gay) or to be a cadet in the club or to be a leader in the club,” Plenge added. “With Frankie (Rivera) as a speaker, that takes a lot of guts and that’s awesome to see. We have a tremendous crop of leaders behind them and I think it shows the old grads the progress we’ve made and that is the best message we can do.”