The Pentagon is under renewed pressure — now most recently from a California U.S. House member — to allow gay service members to have to certain partner benefits already afforded to straight troops, such as military IDs and access to family programs.
On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) began circulating a letter among U.S. House members calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin instituting the benefits to gay troops in the wake of a New York Times article that profiled several same-sex military couples who faced hardship because of unequal treatment despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“[A]s a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries,” the letter states. “As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.”
The U.S. military is prohibited from offering major partner benefits — such as health and pension benefits — to gay troops because of the Defense of Marriage Act and other provisions of the U.S. code that govern rights for U.S. service members. But the Pentagon is still withholding other benefits to gay troops that could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.
The benefits that the letter calls for are military ID cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System; access to Morale, Welfare, & Recreation programs; and access to other family programs. Other benefits not identified in the letter that the Pentagon could extend are access to legal services, joint duty assignments and military housing.
“Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens,” the letter concludes. “As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, ‘Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.’”
Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Panetta would reply to the letter as appropriate.
“As you are aware, the department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners,” Lainez added. “The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective. There are benefits currently available to all of our service members, based on their member-designations.”
Others this week who’ve called on Panetta to enact these benefits are the Human Rights Campaign, which issued an action alert calling on Panetta to grant military IDs to the same-sex partners of troops, and the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN. The calls come in the wake of Panetta’s decision to exercise his authority to lift the ban on women in combat roles.
“After nearly two years of unnecessary and unexplained delay, it’s likewise time for Secretary Panetta to acknowledge and affirm the service and sacrifice of the gay and lesbian military families — who may now serve openly, but are still anything but equal — by immediately extending all benefits within his authority under existing law,” said OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson.
Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped to replace Panetta upon his departure, is expected to answer questions on issues pertaining LGBT troops during his confirmation hearing set for Jan. 31. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, Hagel already expressed commitment to extending partner benefits to gay troops, saying, “I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
The full text of the letter that Schiff is circulating among House members follows
Dear Secretary Panetta,
As you prepare to leave the Defense Department, please accept our gratitude for your years of service to the Nation, including your many years as a member of the House of Representatives.
During your tenure, the American military has taken the historic step of stopping discrimination against gay and lesbian service members by ending the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed homosexuals to serve in the military, provided they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This change has not only made our military a truer reflection of the country it protects, but it has also occurred without any of the disruption that critics had predicted. Much of that is due to your leadership and the senior leadership of the Armed Services.
However, as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries. As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.
We understand that most of the benefits available to veterans, service members and their families are granted directly by Congress. Well over a hundred of these statutory benefits are contingent on marital status. These benefits will remain unavailable to legally married same-sex couples unless the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year or individual statutes are modified by Congress. In the meantime, there are several executive actions that you can take to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families.
We strongly urge you to issue same sex spouses military identification cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). This is the easiest and simplest step to include same sex partners as part of the Department of Defense family.
We urge you to allow same sex partners access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Current regulations leave open to Installation Commanders the possibility of opening up limited access to certain MWR programs to guests and the general public. These exceptions would be applied regardless of sexual orientation or individual situations; in other words, a same-sex spouse could receive guest privileges, just as the girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member receives at present, and would likely be treated as any non-dependent member of the public.
We also urge you to allow same sex partners access to family programs. DoD uses a flexible definition of “family” for the purpose of implementing Family Centers and programming, but leaves it up to the individual Service Secretaries to determine eligibility. Thus, each branch of the service (and each installation commander) determines the extent to which same-sex spouses and partners have access to these programs, which include deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.
Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens. As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”
We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.