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'Don't ask, don't tell' ends, but 'inequity' remains

20 September 11 02:08
Michael Holtz and Stephen Utley
By Kate Dailey
BBC News Magazine

Gay and lesbian members of the US military can now serve openly, as the "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy comes to an end. But does the change in the law mean they can enjoy full equality?

For Megan, an army major in Massachusetts, 20 September has been a long time coming.

The 14-year veteran of the armed forces, lesbian, wife, and mother of two can now stop prevaricating when colleagues ask her about her family.

"I'm sure I appeared standoffish and aloof to a lot of nice people asking simple questions," says Megan. "I don't have to do that anymore."

"Don't ask, don't tell" was introduced in 1993 to replace an outright ban on gays and lesbians in the military, allowing them to serve but only if they stayed in the closet.

Its repeal means that questions like "Who's home with the kids?" and "What did you do this weekend?" are no longer potential career-enders.

But the end of DADT hasn't eased all of Megan's nerves. For one, there's no anti-discrimination measure in place for gay service members, meaning there's no legal recourse if they are denied promotions or harassed due to their sexuality.

And Megan's wife of two years, Karen, is not recognised by the military as a legal spouse.

That means Karen (who, like Megan, is using a pseudonym) isn't covered by military health insurance.

She doesn't have a military ID, which grants wives and husbands of heterosexual couples access to the base and the many social and health services offered there.

And she's not guaranteed access to the support networks sponsored by the military to help the spouses of service members.

Life in the shadows

Being a military spouse is the hardest job in the forces, says Dan Choi, a former Army lieutenant and gay rights activist. Aside from the toll that deployment to a war zone can take, military families often move every two or three years, making it difficult for spouses to build their own career.

To compensate, the military has an admirable support system in place for families. They offer discounted and tax-free household items and groceries at the base stores, provide housing credits or on-base accommodations, and they host social activities designed to improve overall morale.

But the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that denies the right of gay marriage, and Title 10, a part of the military code that spells out who a spouse is and to what services they are entitled, means that same-sex partners won't have access to many of these benefits.

Depending on the will of the base commanders, spouses "may qualify for limited family support, such as access to a deployment support group," says Zeke Turner, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Base commanders can also decide who has access to the service and supplies on base.

"Health care, housing, the big ones are still out of the reach of many of service members who are legally married but of the same sex," says Mr Turner.

Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association (NMFA), says her group has been meeting with the Department of Defense officials trying to address the inequity.

"The military folks still have to sort out what's law, what can we change through policy, and what is a commander best practice," she says. "Some things will happen very fast," she says, while other changes will require Congressional approval.

Various benefits are still eligible to same-sex spouses, says a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, such as the death gratuity, group life insurance and the Thrift Savings Plan. And the department is exploring the possibility of extending other benefits, she adds.

NMFA and other non-profits have been working to fill the gaps - for instance, by helping the same-sex spouses of wounded soldiers travel to overseas military hospitals, a cost normally absorbed by the government.

"There will need to be some outreach to those families who, because of 'don't ask, don't tell', have largely been living in the shadows," says Ms Raezer.

A slow march

Those shadows won't disappear with the end of DADT. Children who were told not to talk about their parent's job or their parent's partner will have to learn new rules.

Families who moved far off base to avoid detection will remain geographically distant even though they're now allowed to participate in social activities.

Couples who have built their entire lives around not being outed are still trying to assess the climate.

When Darin Brunstad's partner was deployed to Iraq, they weren't permitted a public goodbye.

"I had to drop him off far from the main gate, and we had to say our goodbyes quietly, and he had to walk by himself with his pack on his back in the rain," he says.

"He walked through the gates and to the deployment ceremony when everyone else's family was surrounding them. He was by himself."

Now that DADT is ending - a move which opponents fear could undermine military cohesion and disrupt morale - Mr Brunstad could be with his partner at the ceremony when he deploys next year, but he's not sure he will because they fear some hostility.

"The most important thing for me as a partner is that he is safe," says Mr Brunstad. "It's a debate we had every day about when and whether and how he's going to come out after 20th."

Until his partner does come out, Mr Brunstad is now the one who's alone.

"I really have been, to a certain extent, cut out of a very important part of his life," he says.

"I know all of his military buddies and their personalities, I know all of their stories, their family situations, and not a single one of them knows that I even exist."

Not every spouse has been so isolated. Dan LaMott and his partner, a unit commander in the Army National Guard, have been unofficially out for years.

His partner will soon appoint him the unit's family readiness group coordinator, a role designed to keep spouses in the loop during deployments. It's a position usually held by the wife of the unit commander.

"I've been welcomed with open arms," says Mr LaMott. "I start training on the 21st."

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