Cmdr. Beth Coye salutes at her retirement from the Navy. - Lt. Kitty Cane

'Don't ask, don't tell' doesn't fly with her

With a possible upcoming congressional vote ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays, retired Navy Commander Beth Coye of Ashland paused this Memorial Day weekend to reflect that "gays have always fought on the battlefields for liberty and freedom ... but we're not there yet."

Coye, 72, a gay activist and team leader on the Military Outreach Committee, is publishing a collection of letters from ex-service members expelled for being gay under the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The letters detail their pain, lost careers and the nation's lost investment in their skills and missions, Coye said.

The daughter of an admiral and a 1959 graduate of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Coye campaigned through the '60s and '70s for equality of women in the military. Unable to tolerate the military's prejudice against gays, she retired in 1980, came out of the closet and began her battle for gay service members' right to "serve openly and honestly" without compromising their integrity by lying.

"It's my passion," Coye said. "If you lived under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' for those years ... it's just about justice and freedom.

"When it passes, it's going to be a non-event. We (gays) are already serving, 66,000 of us."

Repeal of the policy is contained in the $700 billion Defense Authorization Bill, which passed the House Friday. It passed out of Senate committee and faces likely filibuster in the Senate. It would give the Pentagon the rest of the year to study and plan for the change.

Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a matter of integrity because, Coye said, concealing one's sexual orientation amounts to lying and is thus a violation of the military code of ethics.

One of the earliest female commanding officers in the Navy, Coye recounted the anguish of having to discharge gay service members, while being forced to conceal her own orientation. Harder than that, she said, was "coming out" to her parents soon after she resigned from the Navy.

In retirement, Coye has worked with the Service Member Defense Network on legal assistance for military people subjected to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Military Outreach Committee, of which she is a member, is formed of 70 retired gays from all branches and ranks, as well as "straight allies."

Coye in 1998 published her book, "My Navy Too," telling of the battle to end discrimination against women. It segues into the fight for gay rights in the military and includes many letters from discharged gays.

Coye said resistance in military ranks comes mainly from officers who base objections on threats to unit cohesion, order and discipline and morale, as well as incompatibilities with religious teachings.

"The fear is fear of the unknown, what does it mean to me? Does it mean I have gay tendencies? There's the fear of not knowing how to act (in the presence of gays). How do I talk to a gay-lesbian person?" she said.

"For people under 50 it's no big deal. But my generation is going to be fearful."

The Pentagon is now asking for data and opinions about how to carry out the new policy for the good of all concerned.

As the vote on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" nears, Coye said, "Our world has changed so much in my lifetime, I'm pleased and proud to say. Our country and people listened to minorities and those minorities have fought alongside us (in war). It's very emotional to me to know people stood and raised their voices against their elders.

"Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address said, 'It is for us, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.'

"(Gays) have fought on the battlefields for liberty and freedom. It's about freedom in our country but we're not there yet."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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