ANNAPOLIS, Md. — When his roommate at the Naval Academy said jokingly last year that Andrew Atwill was a homosexual, the midshipman told him to cut it out.
His friend didn't know it, Atwill says, but he really was gay — and under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it could have jeopardized his military career.
This year, the first since the Clinton-era policy was repealed, Atwill says change has come to the academy. And talking about his sexual orientation, rather than being a career-ending offense, has rallied midshipmen to his defense.
"Pretty much everybody in my company knows now," Atwill said, and "they actually stand up for me." If his friends hear someone make a negative remark about homosexuality, he said, they "don't hesitate" to tell that person "it's not cool to do that anymore."
Eight months after the repeal, midshipmen both gay and straight describe a quiet but significant transformation at the Naval Academy. Gay midshipmen are seeking recognition for a student club. Last month, for the first time, faculty members and staff attended an off-campus dinner that had been organized secretly every year by and for gay midshipmen.
And Atwill and his boyfriend, classmate Nick Bonsall, planned to go together to the Ring Dance, a formal ball held each spring for third-year midshipmen.
"It's been really great, actually," Bonsall, 20, of Middletown, Del., said of life at the academy since repeal. "Everyone has been really accepting of us."
The experience at Annapolis this year mirrors those at the other service academies, but some future officers worry about what happens after they graduate. While their generation might be accepting, the broader military is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds. Some senior officers say privately that they won't come out for fear of jeopardizing their careers.
Across the military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell'' — once highly controversial — is "going very well."
"It's not impacting on morale," he told reporters after receiving a report on the subject this month. "It's not impacting on unit cohesion. It's not impacting on readiness."
Gay cadets at the U.S. Military Academy and the Coast Guard Academy are forming clubs. Gay alumni at the Air Force Academy hosted their first football tailgate last fall, and gay alumni at the Air Force Academy and West Point held their annual dinners on campus for the first time.
But at the Naval Academy, while several gay midshipman describe a new level of comfort on campus, some wonder how they will be accepted after they leave Annapolis and join the fleet.
"For me, personally, it's still a concern," said Atwill, 23, of Bolton, Ky. "When I become an officer, I'm kind of worried about whether or not my sailors will take it the wrong way if I give them a pat on the back or, you know, happen to be in the bathroom at the same time as them.
"I'm afraid that if they know that I'm gay, that if I was even to look at them wrong, they may end up somehow turning that against me."
Not everyone foresees problems.
"In the fleet, it will be good," predicted Caitlyn Bryant, a second-year midshipman from Quantico, Va. Commanding sailors after the repeal, she said, "you don't have to worry about what they might think your orientation is. You can just focus on being a leader."
Bryant, 21, said she has seen no "negative backlash" against gay midshipmen: "People have accepted it."