Lesbian Forced to Pay Back $80K ROTC Scholarship. But Shouldn’t Pride be Priceless?


So, I was reading this morning about 21-year-old University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student Sara Isaacson. She’s always thought the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was unfair, way before she realized she was a lezzie herself. Despite the fact that she is enrolled in North Carolina’s ROTC program, when she realized she was gay, she decided to come out because she felt it would be against the Army’s values to lie about her sexuality. Now she’s being asked to repay the $80,000 scholarship given to her by ROTC for her University education:

Lt. Col. Monte Yoder, the head of North Carolina’s ROTC program, said the Army is losing a “great young American” because of Isaacson’s decision to hand him a letter formally declaring her sexuality. He said he gave Isaacson a chance to withdraw her letter – a step he could take because Isaacson isn’t technically in the military, Yoder said.

Totally related tangent: this reminded me of a very similar case back in 2003 with a girl that I once knew. See, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and though I left public high school for boarding school midway through, I kept in relative touch with my female friends from home, went to U-Mich with a handful of ’em, and over the years enjoyed noting how many girls in our extended web of friends turned out to be homos/dirty bisexuals. I mean SRSLY. We could’ve saved a LOT of time in 7th grade fighting over boys if we’d had earlier awakenings.

One of the girls in my general social female web was Mara Boyd, who’d been a jock with a popular boyfriend in high school. She eventually discovered her sexuality and came out in 2002, after her sophomore year at the University of Colorado – Boulder, which she was attending on a three-year scholarship from the Air Force ROTC. After informing her commander of her sexuality in Fall 2002, she was discharged, and consequently told she now owed the ROTC $31,000.

From a 2004 CU story catching up with Mara two years later:

Several CU leaders, including Chancellor Richard Byyny, wrote to Air Force headquarters asking that Boyd’s debt be forgiven, but their requests were denied. U.S. Rep. Mark Udall also wrote on Mara’s behalf, but was equally unsuccessful. “I don’t think the decision is going to be changed,” Boyd said, “We’ve hit a dead end.”

However, Boyd said she does not blame the university or the Air Force ROTC program for her situation; rather, she blames the policy. “I have a real problem with the policy; it’s illegal discrimination,” she said.

Boyd served silently for a year before coming out to her commander. “A sense of integrity had become a part of my life, in uniform and out of uniform,” she said. “I had this problem: I had to look my fellow cadets in the eye and lie to them. It was a real struggle — whether I was going to take on immense debt and lose my career, or live a life without integrity. I hesitate to call it a decision — it was really my only choice.”

Boyd said she doesn’t regret her decision. “Every month I get that bill, it’s hard, but it was the clear choice. I couldn’t physically and emotionally have lied for every day of my life,” she said.

I remember when my friend Erika (who had a girlfriend at the time) told me about what was happening with Mara. It was probably the first time I’d heard about DADT affecting someone I actually knew — or really the first time I’d heard about DADT affecting any one person specifically at all. I was totally stunned. I mean, I’d spent that day arguing with a City Clerk about a $15 parking ticket that I didn’t think was fair for me to pay, and here was someone who essentially owed $31,000 just for being gay. Talk about unfair!

For years afterward, I’d recycle Mara’s anecdote in conversations about how DADT hurts people: “This girl who was like, friends with my friends, when she came out, they made her pay back her ROTC scholarship…” So when I read about Sara Isaacson I thought about Mara, and googled it just to be sure I had the story straight before I told it again. And what do you know, Mara Boyd was one of the five people arrested at the White House in April in the GetEqual protest (which we wrote about A LOT but I somehow missed that detail?) along with Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen, Lt. Dan Choi, Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, and Petty Officer Larry Whitt:

As she stood at attention, her wrists handcuffed to a fence post in front of the White House, Mara Boyd felt “very calm, very clear, very mission-focused.”

The protest earlier this week of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was Boyd’s first experience with civil disobedience and the first time she had been arrested, but she doesn’t think it will be her last.

Boyd, a University of Colorado alumna who was discharged from the Air Force ROTC program at the school after revealing she was a lesbian, had limited her activism to speaking about her experience with the policy… but more than words are needed to change the policy, she said.

“We’ve been talking about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for the last 17 years,” Boyd said. “It’s time for some direct action, for some pressure.”

Eventually Boyd’s debt was repaid by supporters, and she worked as a gardener in Colorado before graduating with a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies in 2007. She now lives in Ann Arbor and met Lt. Dan Choi a week before the protest and decided to join in.

Reading about Isaacson, I wondered how many other women and men this has happened to — back in ’02, internet news wasn’t really a part of our lives, so there was less visibility for these issues. If she hadn’t been friends with my friends, I wouldn’t have known a thing about it.

College is such a transformative time, and coming to grips with your sexuality is tough enough as is. It seems particularly unfair that our heteronormative society in part enables these late discoveries. I mean seriously — not everyone enters the army already knowing they might one day wake up and realize they’re breaking the rules, despite not having made a single conscious choice in that direction.

So what’s in the future for Isaacson? She initially wanted to be an army doctor, like her grandfather. Now:

“Really don’t know how I’m going to make it happen. I don’t have $80,000 in my back pocket to just give to the Army. I had initially received financial aid from UNC when I came here but when the Army ROTC was able to go through because I did finally get medically qualified, I lost all of that financial aid that I’d had originally.”

That’s not good.

So it got me thinking about how so much has changed in the world since Mara lost her scholarship in 2002, yet clearly so little. Issacson is now facing debts, just like Mara did so many years ago. And Mara is again in the news — spending a night in jail! — over these same injustices, just as Issacson may begin to do. Maybe we grew up thinking things would be taken care of by the time we got older? I’m proud that it’s people from our generation (Dan Choi graduated high school the same year I did) chaining themselves to White House gates, as weird as that sounds.

So many things have changed in my own life since 2002 with respect to my own views on sexuality and pride. Things are so different from what I’d assumed they’d be. I mean, I’m doing this (Autostraddle) now instead of what I was doing then (my frat-boy boyfriend).

I started thinking about this one night during Thanksgiving Break of ’01, when a bunch of my old now-queerish-or-queer-friendly friends, including Mara, took me to my first lesbian bar in suburban Detroit. I thought it would make a good story later and maybe my boyfriend would think it was funny. But I was almost defensive about being there, once we arrived, like I wanted everyone to know that although I identified as kinda-bisexual, I wasn’t, you know, GAY gay.

I’ve somehow made this whole thing about me and my life and my feelings. Maybe it’s ’cause it’s Friday and I’m tired?

But anyway, I remember leaning aloof-like against the wall in the red-lit half-full dance room, safely distant from my friends who weren’t at all self-conscious about dancing up on each other in a room of random, hollering, mostly middle-aged lesbians. I’d honestly never seen such a happy room of people at a bar; but that in and of itself was scary. Like everyone was just so happy to be there, except me. I leaned, and I thought about my lame boyfriend and how great my life was because he was going to make me normal, like everyone else, though I didn’t know why I was so afraid of being abnormal, or what that even meant. You know?

I actually never really even talked to Mara that much one-on-one, she came into my group of friends after I’d left for boarding school. By that night in ’01, she’d already gotten an alternative lifestyle haircut and you know, she’d always dressed so boyishly so that aspect was just moreso. She seemed like the new ringleader, almost, and her happiness made my friends happy, but her pride intimidated and frightened me like something toxic.

And soon enough her pride would cost her $30,000. She had all that to lose and was willing to lose it. All I had to lose was some abstract sense of being “normal,” and even that was petrifying. I probably could’ve saved some money by leaving my boyfriend, actually, ’cause I paid all his bills BUT THAT’S ANOTHER STORY ANYHOW. The point is that this is fucking America, and life & liberty is supposed to go hand in hand with the pursuit of happiness.

The fact that America continues to reward shame and secrecy instead of pride & happiness is the most confusing aspect of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  These rules just help people remain scared, you know, I mean, it must be personal. Pride & honesty only scares people who’ve already made a deal with shame, and are sticking to it. I should know.


It’s a good day for a mancrush! Jezebel has Ten Gay Men they’d like to get with.


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Gawker asks the question, Do Your Hobbies Make You Gay? We think probs yes, they do. Know what else makes you gay? Wanting to makeout with your best friend during sleepovers.

Anyway, they say playing hockey makes you straight, but I think that only goes for dudes? ‘Cause Intern Emily Choo the Great played hockey and was even kind enough to explain why cutting Olympic Women’s Hockey would totes f*ck up everything! So if you’re a dude, playing hockey means you’re straight, but if you’re a lady, playing hockey means you want to munch carpet. Tell all your friends! (@gawker)

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3224 articles for us.


  1. i can’t imagine what i would do with an $80,000 debt. like that amount of money is just an abstract concept to me.

    • I know right, like for that kinda debt, I’d at least hope to have some cool stories about hookers and hash.

        • are you asking if college is about hookers & hash? perhaps it depends on the school. see, i didn’t become a hooker ’til after college to cope with the $35,000 debt, and then the hash addiction began to ease my depression and anxiety about overall post-college failures. I’m still in debt, but I think my drug dealer is in jail. So really, the moral of the story is that life can be sad, let’s try to make it better

          • Well clearly for that debt you did get those stories? And I guess I don’t have those, but I’m still in college so there’s time. And I was in a messed up relationship with a girl who smoked a lot and at some point was a stripper, so that’s kind of close. So I guess the moral of the story is that life can be sad, but we can try to make it better with rainbows and sunshine?

          • We could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles! And everyone would eat it and be happy.

  2. This article made my tummy hurt. $80,000 is not a plausible number for me. I can barely wrap my head around $8,000. America is so ass backward. I’m going to Canada to be bffs with Sara.

  3. Dunno how I feel about that Jezebel list. I mean, imagine some dudes putting together a list of lesbians they want to do.

  4. i just wanted to say that the part about thinking the world would be different by the time we got here really felt like a giant truth grenade exploding in my heart.

  5. HAH! @ the lesbo hockey stereotype… I used to argue that it totally wasn’t true and used myself as an example…that argument clearly didn’t pan out

  6. “he was going to make me normal, like everyone else, though I didn’t know why I was so afraid of being abnormal, or what that even meant. You know?” – YESSSS I KNOW.

  7. I graduated from UNC two years ago and still live in Chapel Hill. It is an incredible university with a strong lgbtq presence (check out the SE Regional Unity Conference). It is a shame and an embarrassment that University admins haven’t been more vocal about this, especially at a place where so many of the students rely on merit-based financial aid to get through school (including myself). How convenient that the story reaches mainstream media during the summer when the school paper is on hiatus. If I had to repay UNC for the 4 years I spent there, I would be in a very different place right now.

    The state motto of NC is “Esse Quam Videri” (to be rather than to seem). Seems like the state school needs to get on board with that one too.

  8. Sometimes I get busy with life and responsibility and my Google Reader gets backed up with unread Autostraddle articles, and I think, do I want to read all of this? or should I just click “mark all as read?” But then I start reading a couple articles and remember why Autostraddle is at the top of my Reader list in the first place. Thank you for that.

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