I wrote this back in February for 365gay.com, but it seemed timely to repost it here (with slight updates) in light of the Army National Guard's recent dismissal of West Point graduate and Arabic linguist Lt. Dan Choi under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (He was on the Rachel Maddow Show last week.)
Although the timetable for repealing DADT is perhaps iffier than when I first wrote the piece, there are glimmers of hope, as Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, writes at HuffPo. Regardless of when DADT is repealed--and yes, I say when, not if--it will raise a host of additional questions regarding the recognition of same-sex families, as I explain below.
(For more on LGBT families in the military, see my 2008 interview with an active-duty military officer and her spouse who are raising two children while needing to remain closeted.)
The LGBT community is abuzz with the possibility that President Obama will repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. This is a necessary and important step towards equality for LGBT Americans and enabling our military to recruit and retain qualified personnel.
Repealing DADT, however, is only the first step--albeit the most important one--towards equality for LGBT servicemembers. Unless the federal government not only permits openly lesbian and gay servicemembers, but also recognizes their families, we are asking those servicemembers to defend our country with a fraction of the support given to non-LGBT personnel.
The military takes family support very seriously. Army companies, for example, each contain a Family Readiness Group, "an official command sponsored organization of Family Members, volunteers, and Soldiers belonging to a unit, that together provide an avenue of support and assistance. This network of communication between Family Members, volunteers, the chain of command, and community resources, is for Soldier and Family readiness."
Military families get an extensive set of benefits and resources, including medical and dental insurance, group life insurance, higher pay and housing allowances for servicemembers with spouses or children, coverage for family moving expenses, temporary on-base housing until they find a home, and emergency financial relief funds through four private, nonprofit societies that manage these funds for each branch of the service. On an everyday basis, spouses can buy groceries and goods just above cost at the on-base commissary and Post Exchange (PX).
Spouses and children may enroll in the Survivor Benefit Plan, which pays a monthly annuity upon the servicemember's death. They are also eligible for Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, with coverage up to $100,000 for a spouse and $10,000 for a child.
The frequent relocations of military life make it hard for a spouse to hold a continuous job. Non-military spouses are generally not considered residents of the state in which their active-duty spouse resides, and are thus ineligible for many state benefits like unemployment compensation. Spouses can, however, apply for Military Spouse Scholarships and other financial aid towards training and education for "portable" careers.
Military bases also offer a plethora of support groups and services for spouses and children when a servicemember is deployed, has been injured or killed, or is dealing with the transition back from combat. On a more casual basis, access to on-base facilities puts spouses and children in a community of others who understand the stresses of military life. The military also protects spouses and children with a program dedicated to the prevention and treatment of abuse.
When a family has children, support extends in other ways, such as free New Parent Support Programs, where Registered Nurses and Licensed Medical Social Workers give advice on pregnancy, parenting, and more through home visits, classes, support groups and referrals to community services.
Children of military personnel may also take part in accredited, on-base childcare programs, or in some cases, off-base childcare at the lower on-base rate. (The military runs the largest employer-supported childcare program in the U.S.) On-base schools are not only convenient, but provide a peer group of other children and youth dealing with the frequent dislocations and concerns of life in a military family. The military also offers children a full range of after-school support groups and recreational activities.
There are special college scholarships for children of military families, and free SAT/ACT test preparation. Should the children choose public universities, they pay in-state college tuition rates in either their home state or state of their parent's duty assignment.
The catch to all this? Spouses must be recognized by the federal government. Children must be legal children of the servicemember. This means that even after the repeal of DADT, same-sex spouses will not qualify for the benefits above. If the non-military spouse is the biological or adoptive parent and the couple is resident in a state that does not permit second-parent adoptions, the children would not qualify for benefits, either.
Soberingly, when the worst happens, only spouses, blood relatives, or adoptive relatives can handle the disposition of remains for a deceased servicemember.
With the repeal of DADT, it is reasonable to assume more lesbian and gay servicemembers will choose to stay in the service longer. They would thus be more likely to have a spouse and/or children at some point in their military careers, making the recognition of their relationships a growing issue.
The wording of final legislation to repeal DADT is still up in the air, but the version currently in the House, H.R. 1283, is clear, however, that benefits for families of lesbian and gay servicemembers are not up for consideration: "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to require the furnishing of dependent benefits in violation of section 7 of title 1, United States Code (relating to the definitions of 'marriage' and 'spouse' and referred to as the 'Defense of Marriage Act')."
Hillary Clinton has already agreed to provide same-sex partners of State Department employees with the same benefits and protections as opposite-sex spouses. President Obama has said he will work to repeal DOMA, but has not yet set a timetable.
Let me stress, therefore: We need to stay focused on repealing DADT and not try to work broader family rights for lesbian and gay servicemembers into it right now. As much as it hurts to read the DOMA clause in the anti-DADT legislation, it seems a prudent move at this point in order for the measure to have any chance of success.
At the same time, we should be mindful that family rights for military personnel will be an upcoming challenge--and perhaps an opportunity. The repeal of DADT could highlight the need to enact federal relationship-recognition and adoption rights for every American, if only to ensure that all servicemembers have equal benefits for their families.
In 2007, senior Army leaders, and leaders of every Army installation worldwide, publicly signed the Army Family Covenant, a pledge to support soldiers' families. It says in part, "We recognize the strength of our Soldiers comes from the strength of their Families."
If we are to remain the world's strongest military power, therefore, we must support the families of all servicemembers. Once DADT is no more, we can do no less.