Time to tell

Beth Coye never served for the U.S. Navy under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but she fought as hard as anyone to tear it down.

On Tuesday morning, the law's 18-year reign and eight-month-long repeal process came to an end, allowing gay soldiers to openly serve in the U.S. military for the first time.

"It sounds crazy, doesn't it?" said 73-year-old Coye, a retired U.S. Navy commander. "For the first time in the history of the United States, gays and lesbians can finally serve for their country with integrity."

Formalized in 1993 by the Clinton administration, "don't ask, don't tell" was forged as a compromise between policy makers who opposed allowing gays to serve in the military and those who thought gays should be able to serve openly.

Although the law allowed homosexuals to serve in the military without being discharged, it still exposed service members to investigation if they were suspected of engaging in sexual acts with a partner of the same sex. If they were caught taking part in that type of behavior, the law permitted their discharge for it.

Coye, who climbed the Navy chain of command over the course of a 21-year career, mostly as a closeted lesbian, said she spent most of Tuesday morning answering phone calls and responding to emails from friends, who were congratulating her on the repeal.

"It feels absolutely like a dream coming true," she said. "That's really what it is. I'm just thrilled for everybody that's worked so hard for this."

Joining the Navy in 1960, Coye came out with her sexual orientation to her mother in 1979, and less than a year later she resigned from the service.

At the time, she was the commanding officer of a personnel support activity, a Navy administrative unit in San Diego, and one of the first female commanding officers in the Navy.

She neared her breaking point in 1980, after discharging two young lesbian service members who were outed to the Navy higher command by their fellow sailors for claiming to be gay. They were two of at least eight gays whom Coye personally discharged, she said.

"That's how it was back then, if the word got out you were gone. It was a bad thing to be gay or lesbian," she said. "Every time I sat behind that desk to discharge a person because of homosexuality, my heart just fell. I remember thinking, 'Well, this is pretty hypocritical.'"

After discovering one of her commanding officers had put a tail on her in an attempt to determine whether she was gay, Coye resigned the same year.

As the fight over gays in the military heated up in the early 1990s, resulting in "don't ask, don't tell," Coye knew she had to tell her story. She's one of the authors of the 1997 book "My Navy Too," despite the fact she didn't know at the time whether she would lose her retirement because of the provision.

In April 2010, less than a year before Congress passed an act repealing the provision, she took a collection of letters from the Military Outreach Committee titled, "We Are Family, Too," to Capitol Hill so senators could read about the personal experiences of gays serving in the military under "don't ask, don't tell."

She's also written several articles calling for the repeal of the provision.

"I had it in the back of my head somewhere that I would like to see it repealed in my lifetime," Coye said. "We had a lot of setbacks, and there were times that I didn't think I would, but everything finally came together in a perfect rainbow of events."

Rhonda Loftis, 56, of Medford, served in the Navy from 1973 to 1984. As a lesbian, she came under investigation numerous times for her sexual orientation while serving, she said.

"I never thought I was going to see this day," she said. "Basically we were all treated like criminals. I'm just glad that the next generation is going to be able to serve our country without having to deal with that type of discrimination."

Loftis eventually left the Navy, because it was "too stressful," she said. "I couldn't make a career out it, because I was sick of defending myself against something that I shouldn't have had to defend myself against in the first place."

According to a Jan. 26 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, there are an estimated 66,000 gays and bisexuals serving in the military, and many of them celebrated the repeal publicly.

Both Coye and Loftis had plans to celebrate Tuesday night, though nothing fancy.

"Just a glass of wine or something," said Loftis, who was also booked to play drums with her band Blue Lightning.

Loftis remembers playing drums in San Diego nightclubs while she was still in the Navy, and seeing investigators walk through the door to keep an eye on her.

"So it's nice to celebrate with a little music," she said.

For Coye, a dinner at Omar's with her longtime companion and a few friends is all she wants.

"This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, and it's all a bit overwhelming ... I've been tearing up all day," said Coye, "but Americans should be smiling."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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