THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Commander Beth F. Coye, U.S. Navy (ret.)
“After 21 years of service I chose to leave the Navy early for being forced to compromise my integrity.”
Interviewed by Dr. Jani Rollins, M.D. Videographer, Natalie Weber
JR: It is April 19th, 2019 and we are here with…
BC: Beth Coye.
JR: Please tell us when and where you were born?
BC: I was born in San Diego California, a good Navy town to a naval officer and his wife, my mom and dad in 1937. We didn’t stay there very long because of the Navy tours. We stayed for about six months. In those growing up years, I was all in Navy towns. West coast, East coast and Hawaii a couple times before the war and after the war. I went off to college and if we skip all those years – I went to Wellesley. I’m proud to say I’m Wellesley ’59. We’re having our sixtieth reunion. I’d always thought about joining the WAVES. For some reason I didn’t do that right away. Within six months I decided that Washington D.C. didn’t need me. I was at the League of Women Voters, my first job. I walked into the recruiting office and raised my hand and went to WOCS, Woman Officer Candidate School. That is who I am so far.
JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your family background including the ethnic description of your background?
BC: I have a brother and a sister. I’m the oldest. My brother is four years younger and my sister is thirteen years younger. We are from New England, Scotland and England and are Caucasian.
JR: What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
BC: I joined in 1960 and I had two tours in the Navy. My third tour was what we call PG School, Postgraduate School at American University. I did very well as I’ll talk about later. I got involved in the movement in the late 60s. Prior to that I’d come from a marvelous tour in NATO, Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, Norfolk in an intelligence tour (SACLANT). That was my second intelligence tour.
I put in my resignation because I was so unhappy that we women could not have anything but administrative jobs. I was an anomaly in that I did not; I kept getting good tours other than administration. I was not happy with the outlook in the future for my career path. I put in my resignation and Admiral Colbert who was my boss at NATO said –“ No Beth, I’ve just been tapped to be President of the Naval War College in Newport, and I’d like you to come up there and work for me and you can go to Brown and get your PhD.” Because I told him I was interested in getting my doctorate. So that’s what happened.
I got up there with Admiral Colbert and had another intelligence tour briefing the students. This is like college for naval officers – officers in other military branches. I still was unhappy. And that year of ’69 I became a student in the senior course and that’s a whole other story. I became a student there and learned about group research where you have four or five or six students working on this. I realized we needed to do a study on women in the Navy and where we were — the status of our women.
JR: So that is the turning point of how you became involved in the women’s movement?
BC: I’ll use a quote from Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I’ll tell you how I came alive as an activist. I mentioned I went to American University. I happened to go with thirty-six other officers, all men and I was the only woman. I graduated number one out of 37. Usually if you’d graduate number one, two or three in your class paid for by the Navy, you get to have your pick of the billets for jobs. I wanted to teach at the Naval Academy, or be in the Pentagon where I wanted to be in the political-military affairs office. I was turned down for both. The Naval Academy said, “You’re too attractive, wait until you have more gray hair, we don’t take women on the faculty.” The Pentagon said the same thing only they went all the way to the top. The Chief of Naval Operations said – “Not on my watch. I don’t want a woman in there when I want to say whatever I want to say. I don’t want a woman there.”
That really was what’s called the “click” by Jane O’Reilly. If you remember that very first Ms Magazine where you suddenly feel the sting of discrimination. I said to myself, “If I have a chance, I’m going to do something about this. I should have gone to the Naval Academy to teach.” That’s the beginning of how I got involved with doing something for women. Not just Navy women but all women. I had the perfect situation. As I said, when I was a student and I graduated in 1970 I wanted to do group research.
I set it up and got it approved at the Naval War College level. And it went down to Washington, came back — and this is one of the memorable events — it came back and the Deputy President Admiral called me in and said, “Beth, Rita [Director of the Waves] says no. She says it’s a political hot potato and we’re just not ready for this.” I said, “I’m very disappointed. I’m going to go ahead and do it on my own, but it’s going to take more than just Beth.”
A couple of weeks later my friend Sue, who was my company officer at WOCS and a good friend – she was in BuPers, the Bureau of Naval Personnel – and she heard from her boss Admiral Bagley, who was the Chief of Naval Personnel that he wanted to have a study on women because his boss the Chief of Naval Operations said we’ve got to do something about women. What are we going to do? Sue, my friend, talked to Dave Bagley and he said, I’m going up to Newport and I will talk to Beth.
So, the next thing I knew, I was called into his Bachelor Officer Quarters room and there we were, and he asked, “Do you want a cup coffee?” I said, “Yes sir.” He poured a cup using the hot water in the sink faucet and we sat down and talked. He said, “You know what I want. I want you to do that study.” I said, “Yes sir, but Captain Lenihan doesn’t want it.” And he said, “Do you know who the next director of WAVES is going to be?” And I said, “I think I do.” He said, “Well, it’s Robin Quigley and Robin will back you I’m sure.”
I needed the backing of the Director the WAVES because I wanted to interview all these women. Admiral Bagley said, “Beth, I want it done in two months.” I said, “No sir, I can’t do it. From what I have in mind it’s going to take longer than that.” He said, “Well, all right do the best you can, but I’d like to have it as soon as possible.” I got together a group of junior officers who helped me with editing and also with statistics, because I’m not so great on that. And we needed to do a lot of statistical analysis. I had all the secretarial help I needed at the War College and that’s how the study got done.
It took about six months. It went down to Washington and it sat. They didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t recommend what we should do, I said these are the options. That’s how I was trained. Pros and cons of whether you see women as Traditionalists and what that would mean for career paths, or Neo-traditionalists or Egalitarians. And it’s quite complex.
JR: How did you decide what research questions you would ask?
BC: I had already done a lot of research and I worked with a couple of junior officers. Maybe it wasn’t done scientifically, it was done as well as we could. But it turned out we asked the right questions.
JR: What were the main questions?
BC: How do you feel about women stepping up other than administration? Should you have equal opportunities? What’s holding you back and what is the purpose of women in the Navy? Is it the old nucleus where in case of war we have this nucleus that we can suddenly bring up from the Reserves? Questions like that. It was expansive, and the analysis was important. Admiral Rauch, who was Mr. HRM – Human Resource Management, for Admiral “Bud” Zumwalt – came up to Newport and I talked to him.
I said, “What’s happening with this study. Why is it just sitting there?” He said, “Beth, we’re not sure what to do and Bud needs more ammunition.” I had this light bulb: I said, “There’s going to be a summary of this study coming out in the Naval War College Review which is a quarterly magazine out of the War College and why don’t we ask women officers, and I can make phone calls to ask them to write in either to the editor of the Review or to me and we’ll have more ammunition.”
So that’s what we did. And we got over 37 letters. It was pretty clear — again just verifying and validating — that something needed to be done, particularly with the junior officers. I’m not saying I was “it”. I was one of the pieces and this study was the conceptual framework for thinking about what we’re going to do for the next steps for opening up opportunities for women.
JR: Once they got the extra ammunition and after you asked other officers to contribute, what happened next?
BC: There were women then and I think there still are who were devoted [to women’s issues] – we had a quasi-chain of command, the director of the WAVES. If the director of WAVES says you do something – you do something. I was the WR for instance in Norfolk who was responsible in some way for the enlisted women and the difficulties we had because they were women. There was already a group of women officers in Washington who were thinking about these things. The Admiral put out one of his Z-grams. They got together as a group and figured out what might be different.
By the way, the big thing that drove the men was the All-Volunteer Force that we got in early ’70s I believe. No longer did we have so many men. We needed to supplement with women. So that really was one of the primary reasons. It was just purely out of necessity. So that got started and we did lots of analysis. One of the final things we did, I forget what year, but it was early ’70s, was to unisex the law. I was the one line officer and the rest were JAG officers, lawyers, one other woman, a Marine JAG officer, Pat Gormley. For 30 days, temporary duty, we looked at all the laws and we made recommendations to change them.
I’ll give you an example: I had served in Intelligence Billets, 1630. Every Billet has a designated number. But I was an 1100 (restricted) unrestricted line officer. I was an 1100 with the men but really an 1100 should not fill a 1630, but they did this just because they felt it was important. The fact that I was able to fill in as a 1630 billet meant that maybe we should have women in the 1630 billets in what’s called the restricted line billets and we opened up that opportunity to women.
Another one would be public relations. That was opened up. All this happened within a fairly short time including opening up the Naval Academy and other academies. We did work with the other military services and they also were making some radical changes. When I joined we had two percent women by law and that was one of the laws we changed. We took that away. Today in 2019 we have, I think, 18 percent officers in the Navy are women. That’s a lot. And we’ve made remarkable changes.
JR: Can you go back and tell us a little bit about your rise in the Navy and how you started and where you ended up in your Navy career? How did that unfold?
BC: I had a typical Ensign billet that was personnel. I was Assistant Personnel Officer at Naval Justice School Newport, Rhode Island for 18 months. And then off to recruiting. We had what we called “W” billets and in order to be a good WAVE officer and be promoted you needed to go to either recruiting or Bainbridge (which is the enlisted training) or Woman Officer Candidate School. So, I did that. I told the detail officer, a woman, “I haven’t decided whether I want to stay in the Navy – I’m only a J.G.” She said, “This will make it or break it for you.” So off I went to Philadelphia and I had a wonderful tour of recruiting. It was very interesting all over Pennsylvania and Delaware and New Jersey and then I got selected for a Master’s program at American University.
Upon graduation, I was assigned to a stupid billet. I told you about wanting the Naval Academy. I went to Naval Investigative Service Headquarters in counterintelligence. I didn’t even know what it meant and neither did my detailer. She said, “Well, you’ll find out Beth.” Oh thanks. So counterintelligence means you spy on the other intelligence services. So, I did that – very dissatisfied. You have to stay in a job for a year usually. I stayed in a year and then I went, and I said, “I don’t want any more intelligence – just send me to something else.” She said, “Well, I’m going to send you to the intelligence detailer.” I said – “All right.” I chatted with him and he said – “No, you’re just in the wrong job. You’d be great in intelligence. You’re smart and you’ve got all the right background.”
To make a long story short, that’s when I went down to NATO, a wonderful tour of duty of both operational and strategic intelligence. My boss was a Norwegian commander and his boss was a British captain and it was a wonderful experience. And again though, I was dissatisfied. That’s when I put in my resignation and Admiral Colbert said, “No, you’re coming to the War College and tear that up.” From the War College I wanted to get into human resource management… and I did. I wanted to go to the West Coast. I’d had my first 13 years on the East Coast.
I went to San Diego and I was in my least favorite tour of duty. Admiral Duke Bayne, who was also a family friend of the Coye’s, called me up one day and he said, “Beth, I want you to come work for me” – I had worked for him in NATO – “and be the editor of a very important task force that Bud has asked me to do. It’s Naval Officer Education and Training.” I said, “Well, I’d like to do that for this is my least favorite tour.” He made that happen and off I went, it was supposed to be for three months. It was five months of working on this because I was the major writer and editor.
Then, he said, “Well, where do you want to go? I’d like you to be at the National War College.” By then Admiral Bayne was the President of the National War College. I said, “Well, no sir, I’d really like to go back.” I wanted to be back with my family. My parents were in San Diego and also I wanted to work in HRM and human resource management. So that’s what I did, and he made that happen. Admirals can make those things happen. I went to the Human Resource Management Center for four years. It was a wonderful tour and learned a lot about myself and about management and communications and all those things.
And then I screened for commanding officer. My last tour of duty was commanding officer. I was one of the first women commanding officers ashore – shore duty.
JR: Was it at that point that you were promoted to commander?
BC: No, I had already been promoted to commander. I made all the right moves along the way. I never was deep selected. I was selected in regular time. It was a challenge, because first for one thing this was a brand new command. If you report for duty in a regular command you have got all these rules, policies, procedures and regulations that apply to you and you just update them. But we had to start from scratch. Plus, we were short. This was after Vietnam, but we were still short 20 percent of the enlisted complement and that’s a big hurt.
The purpose of this command, what we had done and because I was part of that making it happen — the implementation of the personnel support activities we set up to be personnel support activities in San Diego. We went from 109 personnel offices in each command having their own down to two and each of those had detachments. For instance, the one that I commanded had three detachments. So, this was complex to bring not only the personnel function but transportation and dispersing. How you get your pay.
Fortunately, in the Navy we say a line officer is a Jill or Jack-of-all trades – you can do most anything. Between my naval training and education as well as my marvelous liberal arts education at Wellesley, I truly believe that I do have a trained mind that could make that happen. The difficulty for me was my bosses — the captains at the Naval Training Center. They were not used to having a senior woman in command. After all there had not been any. They were destroyer men and they didn’t quite like my management style. I had picked it up along the way especially as an HRM specialist. We talked about leadership and training and my leadership was a little different for them. We had struggles and I had struggles also.
There were I think three other commanding officers and my boss, the captain of NTC. We would have regular meetings with our boss, the skipper, and we must have had two or three while I was there for almost two and a half years. And you know they talk like guys and while they wouldn’t say dykes, they talked about faggots and talked negatively about gays. By that time, I knew I was a lesbian and I had had a partner. Their remarks were not good to hear. I would talk back to them. I would give them feedback on that.
And they’d also talk about women. I can’t remember what some of the phrases were because I’ve blocked it out, but they would talk nastily about women. It was difficult in that regard given that I am fairly transparent. I could not say, “Hey, I’m a lesbian and I’m not going to take that.” But I could say, “I’m a woman and I don’t appreciate you talking about women like that.” I tried to be courteous, but I was also angry, and they knew that, and I would just be myself.
I’m the fighter in regard to “Fight, flee or freeze.” I’m a fighter, as you can tell. I fought back and that was difficult, but I still managed to get decent fitness reports overall. I think what really was bothersome to me, if not upsetting, was during that two and a half years at various points I had to discharge eight or ten young men and women for cause of homosexuality. Now if you can imagine sitting behind a desk smiling and saying, “I’m sorry but you didn’t quite pull it off,” and that just hurt me so much. It really did hurt me to have to do that. That is another part of the story later as far as my activism.
While I was there, I must have been two years in, a senior chief came through the door of my office and said, “Skipper, I just have to tell you that our boss has appointed me to check out and see if he can find out whether you’re gay or not.” My heart dropped, and I thought, “Oh my God.” At that point I was not in a relationship with a woman, I was living with one but no relationship. After the senior chief told me this I just went into a big funk and I said, “What’s happening here? I feel betrayed by the Navy. I really do.” And here I grew up in the Navy and my dad – I hadn’t mentioned him, but he was a famous World War II submariner and had gone on to be admiral and most of our family friends were Navy. And here the Navy is betraying me – my true self. I thought about this.
The detailer — by that time we had a male detailer — called because I was coming up for change of duty. And he said, “Beth, I know you’re going to make captain so we’re going to send you to the Pentagon.” I said, “I have to think about that. Something’s come up.” I thought a long time and I could not stay in this Navy that was holding me back as a hidden closeted lesbian. This just was not who I am. It’s a big decision because I’d always wanted to at least make captain. My dad made admiral – I should make captain. It was one of the biggest decisions.
I had come out to my parents the year before when I was 41. Dad knew and when I talked to them about my decision Dad said, “No Beth, you need to stay in. You’re going to be at least a captain and probably a lady Admiral.” He wanted me to stay in for security too, because it’s a matter of pay and total security. I went against that and said, “No, it’s just not going to work for me, Dad.” I retired early; I didn’t get kicked out. All my career I’d been looking over my shoulder thinking if they do find out about my sexual orientation I’m just going to have to say, “I resign,” which I didn’t have to do. It’s a tough thing and it’s not good for your psyche or your psychological health.
JR: How did your family respond when you decided to retire?
BC: Dad was not happy; mother understood. At the beginning she wasn’t sure I was fit for the Navy because I was so independent and strong-minded and strong-willed and would have to go with the orders. She understood my decision. She actually was supporting it. Dad was not, for security reasons. Plus, he wanted his daughter to be a captain. And, by the way, most of my best friends in the Navy, women, went on to be captain. So here I am a commander. But I’ve gone on to do other things as you know.
JR: So that was a transition point for you and the start of another chapter of activism?
BC: Yes, but not right away. The first thing I did was my future partner and I bought a coffee business in San Diego, an office coffee service. We ran that for three and a half years, but we got restless and we were very successful. But time to move on and so I went back to teaching. I had taught International Relations at the Naval War College and I then taught in a San Diego Community College – political science – and also San Diego State and University of San Diego adjunct. “Sex, Power and Politics” was the name of the course I taught. That should have been “Gender, Power and Politics”, but it was still a good course.
When we came up to where we are now in Ashland in 1992 I decided I needed to write my memoir. I had this burning sensation that I needed to put it down as far as how it was to be in the Navy as both a woman and later on as a lesbian. Mainly it was about just my career so that’s another story and that’s another book. I wrote My Navy Too, a creative memoir.
And then somebody called me on the phone. This must have been 2006, and said, “Beth, Captain Joan Darrah retired.” She’d been in for 30 years and was also a lesbian. She’s the best. “We need you, we need you to fight for repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I said, “Oh I don’t know.” She said, “Yes, we really do. You’ve got to come back. We’re going to be working as a lobby group – Service Members Legal Defense Network.” So that was another piece of my activism in which I, as you know, went on to be the West Coast Rep for repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
JR: When you got involved in the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell movement, can you give a little more detail about your role and how it unfolded for you?
BC: Sure. We had what we called (we, being Service Members Legal Defense Network) one of the biggest of the 16 other gay and lesbian groups that were working on repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I got involved, thanks to Captain Darrah, and I went back two times, I think in 2007 or 08 and got to know the people in Washington who were lobbying. The first year, it was all Republican in the majority and that was difficult.
As a political science professor, it was really powerful for me to participate and lobby and see democracy in action. It was both disheartening and heartening to see how difficult the subject of gays and lesbians was for both Democrats and Republicans, but especially Republicans. I stayed involved and I got to know the people, mostly former or retired gays and lesbians. I’m retired and I stuck it out but a lot of them left early. And that’s a shame because they’re outstanding people but they couldn’t take it.
We formed a group — former and retired gays and lesbian officers and enlisted — and we strategized and tried to figure out how we were going to make this happen to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of the leaders of the Navy group. We had all the different services involved and were all leaders ourselves. Some were lawyers and doctors. So we all came together and tried to figure out what would be the best approach. The best approach was a lot of writing op-eds and I became one of the West Coast op-ed opinion writers getting it in the newspapers and going to offices of politicians.
I went to Greg Walden here in Medford and never got to talk to him. I did talk to his senior staff person who later on when we repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he sent me an email saying, “Beth, you were a class act and you hung in there the whole time, and I admire you and congratulations.” I never talked to the Republican Representative Mr. Walden about that.
It was both exciting and hard work, really hard work, and we were trained for these lobby days what to do. One memorable time in the second lobby year we had, we gathered together and we did our training for half of the day on Friday and then we lobbied Saturday and Sunday. This young man was in my group and I had said to myself, “I hope he isn’t in my group.” But he was. We broke down into various groups. He had been a Marine and had come from Afghanistan duty and was now going to be a lawyer at one of the New England universities. He had tattoos all over him and he was in shorts and scruffy. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t think he’s going to fit in at all lobbying with these congress persons and senators.”
But lo and behold he was our best spokesperson. He had been converted when he was in Afghanistan and fought with gay men and he just was so intent on passing and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He spoke up with conviction. He was from Iowa and said, “I never realized until I was in the Marines what this was all about, but we must repeal.” He was just a great spokesman. You never know.
It was hard times but exciting times. It took several years to make this happen – it took a lot of years. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in ‘93. So, it took a long time. That’s one of the things you learn as an activist. Don’t give up. Never give up. You did that women’s march and we keep working for equal pay and equal opportunity for women.
So that was a fight well fought and won.
JR: How are you currently involved in the activist movement?
BC: Not so much. I encourage anybody who wants to talk to me about what is done. In the last couple of years, I have been an activist as far as democracy and what I believe in as a citizen and what I believe in as a political science professor who believes in democracy. I’ve written several op-eds to that effect and I was able to get it in because I’ve been in other top papers, I was able to get in the Providence Journal and some others back East as far as how I feel about our current president.
JR: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned throughout your life?
BC: The lessons learned as far as being an activist. I’d like to concentrate on that. I pick up what Howard Thurman said. “What does it take for me to come alive.” What it took for me was this sting of discrimination. First, as someone who graduated number one and if I’d been a man I would have gone to either the Naval Academy or to the Pentagon in political-military affairs. That’s what I wanted and couldn’t have it. That is pure discrimination. I learned to do something about it if I could. I also learned that it’s important to have your act together. In my case, I’ve been well-educated and well-trained and I wanted to put that to good use. I could do that by just being alert to where do I need to put this energy. It happened at the Naval War College for me.
I learned if you’ve got not only the right stuff but the right decision that you want to have happen then there’ll be others that are going to follow and support you, including the leaders. This is what happened as I described with the Naval War College and the admirals who backed me and the Chief of Naval Personnel who backed me. I learned that it’s not as bad as we think if we start talking to people and communicating. So that was one lesson.
And of course, I learned that you have to be satisfied within your own soul. I had been betrayed by the Navy and realized that I could not take that as an individual. Then I had to make that hard decision about getting out. It was OK in the long run. You just have to take it all in and decide what’s best for you. I also told myself that if I got out that I would do something.
I wrote the book My Navy Too that has been read by a lot of people who have appreciated what you have to put up with in bureaucracy. In fact, it was used in one of the UC Colleges. The professor used it as a text as far as how you fight and how to work with the bureaucracy, which is damn tough. It really is. But you work and you work and if you think you have the right path and the right idea you just keep going. And so also I learned that you have angels along the way who will help you and friends and family.
JR: Are there people that influenced you or were role models in your life that guided you?
BC: Yes. Of course, my parents, especially my mom. My mom was really a single mom through World War II. And my dad was not always there even after the war, because he had a very busy Navy career and was gone a lot. I would say later on in my life I became a Unitarian Universalist and I gained a lot of spiritual health through that connection. No individuals in particular, I would say, but the general values. Captain Sue Young was my mentor and other women officers that we called the “Wavy Navy”. We looked after each other. We had to with only 2%, five hundred of us, and that wasn’t very many women line officers and we ran into a lot of big-time issues. I learned through them, especially the ones I truly admired and there were several of them.
JR: When you came out as a lesbian did people talk to you differently or did they talk to you because of being brave enough to come out?
BC: It has been so long ago. I think it was as you’ve heard people say, it was a matter of being free to be me. And for most of these senior women officers they could compartmentalize. Here I am an intel officer and I had to compartmentalize all the time all the top-secret stuff that I knew. I had to put it in another bin over here and just not discuss it. I didn’t discuss a lot of things when I was working in intelligence but that’s not my style. I’m kind of a give-and-take and let’s work it through.
It didn’t go well with my parents at first, my coming out. It didn’t go well at all with my father. He was a very stoic and quiet man and he didn’t take it too well. That’s an interesting quickie little story regarding my book, My Navy Too. I had sent my parents the drafts and I wanted them to see if there was any letter they didn’t like. My dad was totally unhappy that I was going to get this published. I was going to “out” them.
If you read it, after 100 pages you know that Tucker Fairfield in the book is Beth Coye. Tucker is a lesbian, so Beth must be a lesbian and Dad didn’t like any of that because he lived in Coronado, California where a lot of senior retired admirals and captains live. So that was interesting, because I wanted my dad to be OK with it. At the same time, he wanted me to write about him, write about the USS Silversides (his boat), which, by the way, happened many years later.
There’s a book out The War Below with three submarines and my dad’s submarine is one of them. You learn a lot about my dad. I did. But he wanted me to write about the U.N. or something, but not what I wrote about in My Navy Too. So that was hard for me, very difficult that he would not accept it. But I said, “Dad, I’m 58 and I’m going to do this. I’m sorry if you don’t like it.”
The next time I was down from Ashland to Coronado he said, “I want to sit down and talk to you.” I thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to say not to publish it. He doesn’t want me to.” But he said, “I’m sorry Beth, I just didn’t quite get it, but you didn’t have a choice did you?” And I said, “No Dad, I really wanted to be me. I was born this way and I knew that all along, since I was in my ’20s. While I like men, I love men, but I am not sexually attracted to them.”
And he said, “I get it I really get it.” And he wrote me a check for ten thousand dollars to publish the book. That was a big thing for me. And my mom was very supportive by then. She was always talking to me and talking about we have got to do something about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She lived in those years.
JR: Tell us about We Are Family Too.
BC: You learn from previous things, and, as I mentioned in working on the women’s issues in the Navy, letters played a big part of getting it sold. Let’s go to 2010. There was a Pentagon Study Group on Gays in the Military – it took a whole year, headed up by a four-star General Ham. They would not include us, the retired or former gays and lesbians who had been working on this. They said, “No we don’t want you.” I said I think we should all write our letters as far as how this affected us in the military. I edited the book We Are Family Too.
It is an historical document because not only did the Pentagon Study Group say, “Wow, I got it now, I understand.” They said, “You got to get it across the river.” That means to Capitol Hill, across the Potomac River to Capitol Hill and the White House. So that’s what we did. We got it to all the senior representatives and senators and the President and anybody who was important in this. We got it to them. I can tell you that it made a difference, a big difference.
JR: Let’s talk a little bit about your family and growing up? Was your father in the Navy while you were growing up and how that may have influenced you to join?
BC: I’m what we call used to call a Navy Junior. I don’t know if they call them Navy Brats or not. I learned fairly recently what Brat stood for. I never wanted to be a Navy Brat. But in the Army they referred to Brat as Born, Raised and Transferred. I could accept Navy Brat but I’m a Navy Junior. It was 1937 and the war years. My dad went off and we went off to be with my mother’s sister, who was so close to my mother, and her husband, Uncle Russ. I don’t remember too much of that other than I was the mascot for my Uncle Russ’s basketball team. He was the principal and also the coach to the basketball team and then Dad came home.
I must have gone to at least twelve schools from grades one to twelve. Probably more, because we didn’t stay very long. Dad would have a year tour and he was on a fast track to admiral and he had to have certain tours of duty. I had five high schools which was tough. My sister had two and my brother had three. I had five and that was pretty tough. Mother would say, “It’s broadening your horizons.” We did have close friends. I had close friends who were Navy Juniors also and stationed together on and off so that was fun.
One of the important things for me was to be in the band, because whenever I would move, especially in high school, I couldn’t be an officer, I wasn’t well known. I didn’t know anybody, but being in the band I could always get to know fellow students pretty readily.
You are really serving your country. I want to make that clear too. You really serve your country — the dependents or the spouse and the children. Mother took the tact of wanting to be close to her husband or Dad as much as possible, so she would move. Whereas some Navy wives would stay there and let the children finish school. She always felt it was important to be together as a family. Family becomes super important in most military situations and it didn’t seem to hold me back. I did well in school, well enough to get into Wellesley, a super tough college then and now.
JR: Was it predetermined that you would just follow in your father’s footsteps?
BC: I like to say I have blue-and-gold in my blood because I think it almost was. I was going to try out going to Washington, but in those years in the early sixties women didn’t have much of a chance to be a careerist. In the League of Women Voters (my first job), it wasn’t till you were 35 that you got to be a junior executive and I wasn’t going to wait that long. That’s changed altogether now, but back then that’s the way it was.
It was fun but it was also hard. And we traveled a lot. We traveled back and forth across the country, we had our dogs and so it was mostly good, and I enjoyed it and I felt very comfortable being around military bases. I miss that in Southern Oregon not having military installations, because I’m very comfortable around naval stations and naval bases and PX’s and commissaries and we just don’t have that here. The military is really is a sub-culture of our country.
JR: Anything that we haven’t covered looking back over your life?
BC: I think we’ve done pretty well.
JR: Do you remember the day that you joined the Navy and what was that feeling?
BC: The day I joined the Navy was 25 February 1960. I raised my right hand with my dad, and it was a great feeling. I was ready to go to WOCS whatever that meant. And that meant a whole lot. I almost didn’t get through WOCS, by the way, and that’s true for a lot of Navy Juniors or military brats, because this is not the way you teach somebody to become a naval officer, in my opinion to this day.
JR: Can you define OCS and tell us what that experience was like for you?
BC: In those days we had WOCS separate from the men. Now they’re integrated but we had Woman Officer Candidate School for 16 weeks. It’s still 16 weeks training – the first eight weeks, then we were enlisted, E-6, and then you became commissioned. I put on the uniform and looking down at the stripe and star I thought, “Oh my God, it’s really happening”. It was a wonderful feeling because I wanted to serve my country. In those days it was two years only. It seemed like a long time. Now it’s more like three or four years. Graduating was hard, because I had a bad military grade, one of the lowest. I had the top academic grade.
I didn’t believe that a lot of this teaching was the way you educate. And Sue just kept saying, my company officer, “Beth, we’re not educating, we’re training you.” It was not the way I would have trained OCS to this day. Yet it was in Newport where I had graduated from high school at Rogers High, so it all felt very comfortable. And I was thrilled. It was a thrilling thing and I said, “Well, this is going to be an adventure,” and it was. It was a wonderful career of 21 years. But it had to end a little early.
JR: Looking back on your life and all of the choices that you made how do you feel about that now?
BC: I put together a whole box of my written materials and that really was very comforting and satisfying to me because there were many wins, weren’t there? Whether it’s the Study at the Naval War College or all the work I did for and with women in the Navy and in the opportunities that have expanded now so that we have women commanding officers of destroyers and flying airplanes. That’s very heartening to me that I helped do that.
And then, as far as a gay activist, we too had success. Big time success to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which never should have been, but we had to go through those years and steps. So again, it’s very rewarding to know that I was a big part of helping us convince senators and the White House and others to pull that off and to make the change and to make the right decisions. I think I’ve lived a full life with up’s and down’s in my personal life, but mostly positive.
I try not to have regrets, but I would have enjoyed being a captain, probably not a lady admiral, as my dad said, because I’m too political and too smart. I shouldn’t say that, but I saw that at the Naval War College we had several officers there who were on the faculty who didn’t make captain. I talked to a couple and they said, “Beth, we’re too intellectual, too much in our minds and scholars and the Navy would like to have seagoing officers mostly and also political types.” That’s some of my reflection about my life.
JR: Do you have any words of advice for young activists?
BC: Yes. Trust your heart. And be sure you have everything altogether before you go out with that heart and be an activist. Do your research, make sure you’re on the right track and that you’ve got the right policy that you’re advocating. Stay healthy if you can. You can really get exhausted and tired by committing too much. Take care of your health and talk to friends and family about this and you’ll see what the right path is for you.