Retired naval commander advocates for law’s repeal.
In 1980, Navy Commander Beth Coye found out that she was being followed. A colleague informed her that their captain had asked him to tail her. The captain suspected that Coye, one of the first women to become a Commanding Officer in the Navy, and a 20-year veteran, was a lesbian.
At the same time, she’d been wrestling with having had to fire eight men and women from Navy service for “cause of homosexuality.”
“I decided I couldn’t live with this anymore,” said Coye. “It was too much for my soul and my integrity.”
Drawing on those painful memories and on two decades of hiding her identity from her colleagues and her superiors, Coye has become an advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal law that mandates the dismissal of openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members.
The House voted to pass legislation leading to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at the end of May, shortly after the Senate Armed Services Committee also voted for repeal. The bill has yet to go before the Senate.
Coye, 72, writes, speaks, and lobbies against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from her home in Ashland, Ore., where she’s also a member and two-time past president of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. She’s a founding board member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a nonprofit advocacy group aimed at ending discrimination and harassment of military personnel affected by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Coye sits on the SLDN’s Military Advisory Council, which recently prepared a book called We are Family Too. The book was created for the Department of Defense’s Comprehensive Review Working Group, a Pentagon committee charged with studying the consequences of allowing openly gay men and women in the military.
With this book, Coye said, the SLDN is telling the Pentagon that gay and lesbian military personnel have families, too. And many, like Coye, grew up in military families that fully support the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
We are Family Too is a 132-page book of letters produced by the SLDN in printed booklet and pdf forms. It was first distributed to the Pentagon committee, but Coye next helped distribute it to members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and other key people on Capitol Hill. It includes 37 letters and biographies from people in all five branches of the military. The letters recount the inequalities and stress suffered by gay and lesbian service members.
The book of letters has not yet been released to the general public. Coye is gaining permissions from letter writers so that the book can have a wider release, and she’s investigating publishers who might be interested in bringing it to a general audience. “The American public should read these letters and then they'll feel even stronger about repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ yesterday, not in 2011,” Coye said.
Included in the Navy section is a letter from Coye. In it, she recounts first growing up in a military family, the daughter of an admiral. After graduating from Wellesley College, she enrolled in the Navy’s Women’s Officer Candidate School in 1960. Coye rose through the ranks with stellar credentials. Yet she writes in the letter that she always felt a “sword of Damocles” over her head. “Early in my naval career I began to realize that I might be a lesbian or a bisexual.” She went on to describe that she became “always fearful that I might be discovered.”
Coye refers to her advocacy as “the UU in me.” Although she didn’t join a Unitarian Universalist church until she was in her 50s, she has fought for rights all of her adult life.
When she joined the Navy in 1960, she had few female counterparts, and women attended their own Officer Candidate School, separate from men. Early in her service, the Navy sent her to American University to study for her master’s degree in international relations. She was the only woman among the 37 naval officers in the program, and she finished first in her class. That entitled her to select her next assignment or “billet.” Coye chose to teach at the Naval Academy. The naval brass told her no—that she was too attractive and should wait until she had a few gray hairs. Her second choice was to work in political military affairs at the Pentagon. But she was denied that, too, when the CO said he wanted to be able to swear as he pleased without having a woman around.
Coye eventually began working in naval intelligence and conducting research at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Much of her research centered on women in the Navy and on developing policies that would foster women’s success in the armed forces. She was motivated by the discrimination she had experienced herself. “I wanted to do something for women as far as justice is concerned.”
Coye was able to speak out for women in the Navy. Gay and lesbian service members, however, cannot speak out for their rights in the armed services or they risk being dismissed. Former military members are freer to speak up on their behalf.
In 1998, Coye published a book, My Navy Too. It is also a series of letters, but fictionalized ones, that tell the story of Tucker Fairfield, a female Navy officer whose life mirrors Coye’s. Coye had originally set out to write a nonfiction book after the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation passed in 1993 during the Clinton presidency. What emerged instead was a “creative memoir,” said Coye. She disguised her story as a novel in part out of fear of losing her pension benefits if she publicly stated that she was a lesbian.
The novel launched Coye on her personal campaign against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In addition to working with SLDN, she writes op-ed pieces and speaks frequently. In a February op-ed in the Oregonian, Coye succinctly summed up her belief about why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be repealed: “It’s about integrity, stupid.” She also wrote, “Each year more than 3,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of our armed services either resign early or decide not to re-enlist.” That echoes Coye’s experience. A year before she resigned from the Navy, she told her parents that she was a lesbian. Her retired admiral father counseled her not to leave the Navy. But for Coye, it was a matter of integrity.
After she retired from the Navy, Coye taught political science at San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She moved to Ashland, Ore., in 1992, where she still lives with her former partner, Esther Bain Bell. She spends about half her time engaged in volunteer work, working with her church, with the SLDN, and conducting workshops and trainings in the community. In late June, she spoke to Lotus Rising Project, a youth-led social justice organization in southern Oregon. She emphasized to the youth the impact that activism and coming out has had on society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians. “Attitudes have changed dramatically,” Coye said, “and I attribute this to young people coming out, and it spreads,” as people get to know a relative or friend or neighbor who is gay or lesbian.
In the military, by contrast, Coye said, many officers say they don’t know anyone who is gay or lesbian. That’s because they’ve grown up in, and spend their time in, military culture, where people can’t be out. Talking openly is the way that changes, Coye maintains.
Combating the conservative military culture, Coye said she is grateful to have the encouragement of her liberal fellowship behind her. “It’s been very helpful to have my friends in the fellowship give me support,” she said. “I need that.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).