For gay students at Norwich, room to grow, lead and be themselves

Morgan Woods

It might seem unlikely that a small, long-standing strict military college nestled in the hills of Vermont could be a judgment-free place to be gay. However, Norwich, founded as the nation’s first private military school back in 1819, has made a name for itself with its open acceptance of members of the LGBT community.

For two cadets in the military Corps, the guiding university principle of fostering leadership and judging people by their character and skills, not their gender or sexual preferences, has proven to be true, and the school has lived up to motto.

“Whether it’s interacting with the people living around me, or going to classes as a functioning cadet, me being attracted to men is not an issue,” said cadet Andrew Guiberson, a 20-year-old sophomore business management major from North East, Md. “The issue is me doing the tasks that are asked of me, like it should be.”

A similar viewpoint is shared by Morgan Woods, a 20-year-old junior psychology major from Newton, Mass.

“It was always a thought in my mind when picking schools because I knew I wanted to go into the military on active duty and I knew that I wanted to live the (military) lifestyle 24 hours a day, and I knew that I was gay,” Woods said. “When going through senior military colleges to pick, having to decide whether or not I wanted to live my school life back in the closet again for my career there was a big factor.”

As it turns out, Woods has succeeded and thrived in the military environment beyond what she could have imagined.

Two weeks ago, she was chosen the new Regimental Commander, the highest-ranking cadet in the Corps of Cadets, for the 2018-2019 school year. With that decision, she became the first openly gay student leader of the 1515 military cadets at the university, which also has around 860 civilian students.

“It was an awesome process to go through, each interview and step in the application process, but I never said or mentioned at any point that I was gay, I didn’t want my selection to be part of an agenda-based decision,” Woods said, noting she wanted to be selected solely on her accomplishments, and not because of her sexuality or any kind of label.

“I wanted it based on my qualifications, just like many other gay people here would. I wanted it due to merit,” Woods said. “And it’s more like I want to be the Cadet Colonel, the future Army officer who is also gay, not the gay future Cadet Colonel.”

Guiberson approached Norwich the same way.

“I was a very motivated high school senior. I was ready to go, to challenge myself, to put myself in an environment where I was trying to accomplish something I thought was impossible,” Guiberson said.

“Going to Norwich and being in the Corps of Cadets is intimidating enough. Having to worry about people discrediting what I could accomplish because I like guys is something I was worried about,” Guiberson said. But he found during his freshman year the military structure removed any concerns, because it challenged him to interact with his platoon or squad on a level that pulls out the character traits and the defining features of who a person is, not who they find themselves attracted to.

Guiberson said his perspective of the Norwich student community is one of being right-leaning in the political arena but gay-friendly and more accepting of social differences. He points out that there is a diversity of views among gay people just as there is among straight students.

“Norwich walks that middle ground line. It’s not the kind of gay community like you see exhibited and stereotyped in the media’s agenda. It’s a community that has gay people in it,” Guiberson said. “It is a slippery slope, it is media-driven. And that slippery slope of acceptance that you get with a bunch of the overly-liberal media is adding too many letters to the end of LGBT.”

Guiberson notes people have different views on what is equality or social normalcy, and where they draw a line on what their agenda is.

“There is a fine line between advocating for marriage equality one day and the next day turning around and advocating for overly-sexualized young boys up on the stage dancing to mature, female-sung songs and being watched by gay men in their rainbow tank tops and white skinny jeans enjoying the show,” Guiberson said. “I don’t want to be part of that community. That’s why I drew away from it. That slippery slope of adding too many letters, because that’s not sexuality, that’s pedophilia.”

Guiberson explained that Norwich’s rigid rules and military discipline in the Corps and lack of attention to sexuality may seem to be a social contradiction but in fact it is a system that works well and focuses on what counts.

“Norwich exists in this weird environment where you’re not going to hear a lot about the social aspects that people bring. You’re going to hear about their character. And that’s defining,” Guiberson said. “There’s the ‘you do you’ mindset which happens as people don’t care what you are or who you like, they care that you do the right thing.”

For Woods, some of Norwich’s acceptance of people for who they are is due to the geographic area that Norwich draws students from and its location. Vermont is very progressive and accepting as a whole, she said, as are the students who come here from Massachusetts and California and other more socially-forward states.

“I came from that progressive kind of environment, growing up right outside of Boston, so the transition to come to Norwich made sense to me,” Woods said. “I had a host that was a female and was out when I came to visit, and she really opened my eyes up to how accepting the school was and how there was really no issue for people being gay here.”

That was not what she saw in high school, where an environment existed of some girls making fun of others, just because they had nothing else to do with their time, Woods explained. Playing on sports teams and developing strong bonds overall was something that helped her to gain more comfort and confidence with where and who she was.

“Unfortunately, it is seemingly easier for girls to be gay and be out than it is for guys, especially in this military environment and atmosphere of masculinity where it’s considerably easier for a girl to be one of the guys than it is for a guy to be gay and still fit in the same way with straight males,” Woods said.

The divide stems from what is expected of a male who identifies as straight or gay and what society expects of them because of that, Woods said. Woods added that Norwich is able to maintain a middle ground of social-acceptance also because it does not place emphasis on any particular religious mores that is opposed to homosexuality.

“It is even coming from a religious upbringing, like I grew up Jewish and I am still practicing, and there are certain things in those regulations or texts that are listed as sins and unacceptable, like homosexuality,” Woods said. “But it’s also not followed to a “T”. Everyone is born a sinner and we sin in different ways, and me liking who I like is my sin.”

Norwich no longer holds mandatory religious services, due to the variety of different religions of the students on campus. This is helped by the fact of religious freedom where a person can practice whatever religion they want to if they want to, but someone does not have to practice any religion if they do not want to, Woods explained.

“Even with religion, the military environment, and this atmosphere of masculinity, I think Norwich does a good job especially with rook training of pushing out the values that matter,” Woods stated.

Rook training, the intense period when freshmen cadets are introduced to Norwich traditions and highly regimented military discipline and training by “cadre” of upper-class cadets, is when she saw that what counted is who someone is as a person – their integrity, honesty, honor, and other character traits — and not who they like, Woods said.

Woods explained how there is going to be adversity in being someone different, as it is often normal of younger people to pick at things that are different from themselves out of habit.

“While I have never personally experienced a kind of adversity, like being kicked out of my house for being gay, I have seen it happen. Even my rabbi back home is gay, so my upbringing was very progressive,” Woods said. “I have known of people here even who have been chastised before coming here or even sent away from their own homes because of who they are.”

But she has found Norwich a very accepting environment for leaders, learners, and all humans.

“Even within leadership roles both within Army ROTC and the Corps of Cadets, being gay is not something that I hide, but it’s not something that I put out there as a crutch,” Woods said. “I don’t want it to be something that I find myself leaning on. It is something that is part of who I am, but it is not all of who I am.”

For the new Regimental Commander, labels have little value or benefit. The focus should be on the person and their character, and they should be judged on that basis and that alone.

“It’s like how Judge Judy said she was not a feminist or a female judge, she was a judge who just so happens to be a female,” Woods said. “I didn’t want to be Morgan the gay person. I wanted to be Morgan the person, who happens to be gay.”

Comments

  1. Steven P Robinson, NUCC 79 says:

    Frankly, acceptance of fellow members of the Norwich community (military or civilian) who are gay is NOT new.

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