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Listening for The Click

Beth Coye and her mother were on the patio when Coye, a naval officer, came out to her mom as a lesbian.

"It was the hardest thing I'd ever done," Coye says.

She'd tried to feel an attraction to men in her 20s and 30s, but it didn't work, she explained.

She had a feeling her mother was not entirely surprised.

"She turned at the door and said, 'Well, Beth, it's not as if you didn't try.' "

That clicked with Coye. The U.S. Navy would not be so understanding.

With a father who was an admiral, Coye had chosen the Navy as a career. In 1979 when she had the talk with her mother, she was the commanding officer of a personnel support activity, or PSA, a Navy administrative unit in San Diego, and one of the first female C.O.s in the Navy. To be outed as a lesbian would have meant instant dismissal, so like countless service members, she lived a lie.

At 10:30 this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 87 4th St., Ashland, Coye will talk about her journey and sign copies of "Coming Out in Faith," a new book from the church's Skinner House Books in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people tell their stories.

"One of the songs on the program is 'The Impossible Dream,' " Coye says. "I dreamed women would be able to fly planes and pilot ships, and gays could serve openly in the military."

Congress In December repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but the military services were given six months to ready themselves. The time is up.

Friday, President Obama signed an order saying the Defense Department is ready to repeal DADT. Now there's a 60-day waiting period, and on Sept. 20, DADT, enacted in 1993, is toast.

It's been a long time coming.

Coye grew up with boy friends but no boyfriends and went to all-female Wellesley College. She took a couple of semesters at co-ed schools but found no sparks with young men and returned to Wellesley. After graduation she joined the Navy and fell in love with another woman officer, which was painful and confusing — she also loved the Navy — but felt right.

"I had to not be true to myself," she says.

In 1965, with Vietnam heating up, she was the top rated of 37 young officers graduating from American University's School of International Service master's program. She'd hoped for an assignment to teach at the U.S. Naval Academy or work in the Pentagon's politico-military affairs office but was offered only a mediocre job in naval counterintelligence, reading reports.

That's when she had The Click. Unlike the click Brick Pollitt gets when he's drunk enough in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," this click was not a dulling of the mind but an awakening. She encountered the idea in an article by feminist writer Jane Reilly.

Still hiding, she got a job as the first woman in an intel division. She taught at the Naval war college for four years. Then with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt's blessing, she eventually produced a study of women in the Navy, after which she was known as the Navy's flaming radical women's libber.

Her command post in San Diego led to a crisis of conscience. As the unit's C.O., she discharged at least eight young men and women "for cause of homosexuality." She says she managed the conflict she felt by "compartmentalizing" her actions and telling herself things would change.

"This reality is the ultimate of cognitive dissonance," she explains in an email. "It can cause breakdowns (I've seen them). It can cause great heartaches. Some get out early, others buckle down and compartmentalize and stay as long as their integrity will allow. That I became a commanding officer was the tipping point for me."

One day she discovered her superior had put a tail on her. So came another Click, and a decision point. Her father advised her to stay in the Navy, where she figured to soon make captain. But 21 years of living a lie was enough, and she resigned.

She felt free. She ran a commercial coffee service for several years, then taught at the college level in San Diego. The fight over gays in the military heated up in the early 1990s, resulting in Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and she knew she had to tell her story. She's one of the authors of "My Navy Too," despite the fact that it wasn't entirely clear that military retirees weren't included in DADT, and that she might lose her retirement.

"I said I guessed I could be a martyr if I had to," she says.

Retirees, it turned out, weren't subject to DADT.

Over time Coye experienced what she says was a deepening spirituality in a tradition that stressed justice and compassion in relations between people. She's spoken out locally and nationally against DADT. When it was repealed in December of 2010, she felt the Navy was, after 50 years, her Navy too.

There's a bill in the Senate now to repeal the ironically named Defense of Marriage Act, which denies the benefits of marriage to gays. President Obama has come out in favor, but some Republican candidates are signing pledges to right-leaning religious groups to defend the act.

Coye likens it all to Plato's allegory of the cave. People have "filters" that keep them from seeing the world as it is. Prisoners in a cave believe the distortions they see are real. It's only when they escape from the cave that they sense The Click and see reality.

Coye says it's heartening to see people throwing off their filters and finding out their gay friends and family members are pretty much like them in every way but one. Even her father. One day he said to her, "You had no choice in the matter, did you?"

That's when she knew he'd had his own Click.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.