Published December 30. 2009 4:00AM Updated December 30. 2009 12:11PM
Bronwen Tomb is sitting quietly, almost apologetically, in a small Greek diner in Staten Island, N.Y.
She is 26 years old now and her brown hair is longer than when she was front-page news a few years ago, her face a bit more angular and mature. The blue eyes still captivate.
Here in this little diner, with a few stools at the counter and a handful of tables, sits the woman who in 2006 was kicked out of the Coast Guard Academy for violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Here sits the woman who in April 2007 rode a bus filled with gay, lesbian and transgender people who traveled across the country to colleges they felt had discriminatory policies and challenged the institutions to re-examine their beliefs.
Here sits the gay activist. Right?
Not so fast.
Bronwen Tomb's life is quieter than the last time we saw her. But maybe those snapshots in time were never completely accurate, as snapshots never really are.
"I feel like maybe I'm kind
of boring; I do think I am," she says, apologizing again, as if a regular life is not enough, is not worthy of ink on newsprint. As if it is not who we expect her to be and she doesn't want to disappoint.
"I don't go clubbing. I just do really normal things. I wash my clothes and read the news and go to the pizza place sometimes," she says. "I don't even ride my bike because the brakes are broken. I take a free tai chi class on Thursdays, but I'm really bad at it. Don't ever ask me anything about tai chi."
She is asked whether this Bronwen, who graduated from college in the spring, who lives in a small apartment and tried like hell to find a job the past six months, is closer to the real Bronwen than the one in the news a few years ago.
"Yeah, definitely," she says, and smiles. "I'm kind of just a nerd."
After she walked off that bus, Tomb says, she caught up with friends and volunteered at New London's Freedom School. She finished an independent study and took her younger brother to visit their father in California for the summer.
She spent a year at the UConn-Avery Point campus, then last year transferred to Storrs. She went to South Africa for a month with a professor.
But for all of that, she says, she's not sure she'll continue in science. Her grandfather was a wildlife biologist, and as a child Tomb thought she might be a reporter for National Geographic and find adventure in the jungle.
Her degree in science, she says, is likely a carryover from those days. It was also something that seemed tantalizingly straightforward after the Equality Ride and a month on the bus.
"At that moment I had run out of things to say," she says, "and I'd said them all and maybe people listened or didn't, but I just wanted to talk about…"
"Do something peaceful."
She quickly corrects herself.
"I'm not saying the Equality Ride wasn't peaceful - that could be a horrible sound bite - but there was a lot of conflict around it."
It's time for other people to do the ride, get arrested and to have their names splashed across the Internet. Hers is still linked to the Equality Ride.
"If you Google 'Bronwen Tomb,' it's like, 'GAY,'" she says, drawing out the word and spreading her hands to mimic a name-in-lights action. "It's kind of obnoxious, but that's what happens."
She doesn't regret any of it, but says it would be nice to be known for something else.
"I do sort of get excited by the idea that a Google search could turn up something else in the future," she says, "that maybe I'll do something else that will define me enough to replace (that). Not that I want to be all over Google; I wouldn't mind if you Googled my name and nothing came up, but I (also) wouldn't mind if the emphasis changed a little bit. I think I'd be happy about that."
Tomb is starting over slowly. She just started a job as an outreach coordinator for the Service Women's Action Network, a Manhatten-based nonprofit organization for women veterans and women service members.
She likes the group's mission and the work, and yet there is no escaping the emotions that take hold when she sees what her former classmates at the Coast Guard Academy are up to.
"It doesn't really ever matter how long it's been," she says. "I still have a lot of friends who are in the Coast Guard, and I always still look at their lives and see what would have been my life."
Does she wish it never happened, that she was still in the Coast Guard?
"That's too hard of a philosophical question," she says, "just because then you have to imagine that everything you've done since (then) didn't happen and the people you know, you don't know. There's too much to that.
"I liked the Coast Guard. I was doing well in the Coast Guard; I think I would have done well in the Coast Guard."
The hardest part, she says, were these last six months.
"I think that the last six months were hard because I didn't have a job," she says, "and everybody who graduated from there, no matter how well or badly they'd done or what problems they had, had a pretty good job in the Coast Guard doing things that I find to be interesting."
And then there are the friends who hate it, who are biding their time until they get out.
"That's kind of weird, to be around people who don't really want to be in the Coast Guard," she says.
Her next steps, she says, include seeing where her new job takes her and perhaps going to graduate school.
She wrestles with the unanswered questions, and with the unease that comes from being 26 years old and facing an uncertain future after thinking she'd already planned it out.
"I'm happy with my life, though," she says. "I'm happy with the things going on."