Despite rosy pronouncements from the Obama administration and others about the supposedly smooth transition to open service in the military following the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a host of new problems has emerged for gay and lesbian troops.
Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partners Association, said “there are clearly challenges that remain” for gay service members following the implementation of open service.
“These military families are still facing challenges that need to be addressed sooner rather than later,” Peters said. “All they are asking for is to be treated the same way as their counterparts — simple equality, no more and no less.”
In the past week, attention has focused on state national guard units refusing to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages; an Army base having to make special arrangements for chaplains to accommodate a lesbian couple; gay veterans not receiving benefits in non-marriage equality states; and the condition for gay cadets at the Air Force Academy, where a practitioner of “ex-gay” conversion therapy holds a leadership role.
Nat’l Guards refusing benefits for gay troops
Several state national guards continue to refuse to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, citing state constitutional amendments banning gay nuptials. This comes after an edict from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying he’s directed the National Guard Bureau to ensure the guards follow Pentagon policy to provide these benefits everywhere in the wake of the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.
One state that has received significant attention is Oklahoma, where Gov. Mary Fallin on Nov. 6 ordered her national guard facilities to stop processing benefits altogether and directed all couples — gay and straight — to federal installations within her state to apply for benefits.
“Oklahoma law is clear,” Fallin said. “The state of Oklahoma does not recognize same-sex marriages, nor does it confer marriage benefits to same-sex couples. The decision reached today allows the National Guard to obey Oklahoma law without violating federal rules or policies.”
Like other states, Fallin cited a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage or conferral of spousal benefits to gay couples. In the case of Oklahoma, voters approved an amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004 by 75 percent of the popular vote.
According to the National Guard Bureau, a total of five states are not complying with the edict: Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina. The list omits Oklahoma, but the Guard wouldn’t respond to a request for comment on why the state isn’t included.
These states maintain only the processing of same-sex benefit applications is being denied, so once these troops are enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, they’d be able to receive them wherever their assignment. However, LGBT advocates have said participation by same-sex couples in national guard activities, such as “Strong Bonds” retreats for married couples, is threatened by these states’ decisions.
Although the Pentagon has threatened additional action if these states refuse to comply with the Defense Department directive on benefits, a Defense official wouldn’t speculate as to what this action would be.
“These are federal ID cards paid for with federal funding to provide federally mandated benefits,” the official said. “The Secretary has directed General Grass to resolve this issue with the TAGs. We’re not going to speculate on legal options at this time.”
Some ideas that have been speculated include a lawsuit against these states, deprivation of federal funds or federalization of these guards by President Obama.
Gay veterans not receiving spousal benefits
Also gaining attention in recent weeks is the inability of gay veterans to obtain certain spousal benefits if they live in a non-marriage equality state.
Even though the Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA, Section 103(c) of Title 38 looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a couple is married. That means that gay veterans who marry their same-sex partner in one state and move to another that doesn’t recognize their marriage can’t apply for benefits while living in that state.
Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, last week introduced a bill that would change Title 38 to enable benefits to flow to gay married veterans no matter where they live.
Joining him as original co-sponsors for the bill, known as the Protecting the Freedoms and Benefits for All Veterans Act, were gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
In an interview with the Blade, Takano said the legislation is a “backup” plan should the Obama administration decide it must continue enforcing the marriage state of residency statute even after the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA.
“We are not 100 percent sure whether the administration will or is able at this point to do that,” Takano said. “We’re introducing this legislation as a backup. We’re not finding fault with the administration; it’s just that it came to the attention of committee staff and the Equality Caucus in the Congress that this is a potential issue, and so we wanted to make sure that we drop along with the necessary Republicans and Democratic co-sponsors.”
Calls on the Obama administration to stop enforcing the state of residency statute under Title 38 in the wake of the court ruling against DOMA have previously come from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has called on the administration to stop enforcing the statute until a legislative fix happens.
Chaplains can’t accommodate gay couple on retreat
The issue of chaplains not being able to accommodate same-sex couples at “Strong Bonds” retreats run by the U.S. Army Chaplain’s Corps for members of the national guard has also emerged as an issue.
Last week, the American Military Partners Association issued a news release saying that a lesbian U.S. soldier, whose named wasn’t disclosed, and her same-sex spouse, Shakera Leigh Halford, were denied access to a retreat at Fort Irwin in California.
After the story generated media attention, the public affairs team at Fort Irwin shot back by insisting the couple wasn’t denied access, and instead the chaplains at the base had sought to find other chaplains to make accommodations.
Pamela Portland, a spokesperson for Fort Irwin, confirmed that account for the Washington Blade, saying chaplains had sought to find an appropriate person to make the accommodation following a Nov. 7 meeting between couples and the commanding general — even before the news story broke.
“We have eight chaplains here at Fort Irwin,” Portland said, “and they were restricted by their religious affiliation, they could not move ahead, but they immediately went out to find someone who could.”
Still, in a statement from the American Military Partners Association that followed, Halford decried the notion that she and her spouse required special arrangements.
“It makes the whole thing very awkward and embarrassing,” Halford said. “Why can’t we just be another couple at the retreat, like everyone else? Why do we have to have special arrangements?”
Air Force Academy hires ‘ex-gay’ advocate
Finally, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has received criticism after AMERICAblog first reported that Mike Rosebush, an advocate of widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy, was hired by the Academy to oversee its character coaching program.
As AMERICAblog’s editor John Aravosis points out on his blog, Rosebush served as a clinical member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a fringe group that advocates for “ex-gay” therapy, and as a vice president of the anti-gay Focus on the Family.
“Rosebush’s entire career for the past two decades has been devoted to ‘curing’ gay people of what he clearly deems a problem, and what his former employers consider an illness and a depravity,” Aravosis writes. “How then could Rosebush not include a discussion of sexual orientation in his character and leadership coaching at the US Air Force Academy?”
During a conference call with reporters last week, the Air Force Academy presented three gay cadets at the Academy in an attempt to dispel the notion the Academy fostered an anti-gay atmosphere.
While presenting a general sense of acceptance, the cadets reportedly acknowledged they did face issues at the academy, but they had been addressed. To the consternation of reporters on the call, the Academy wouldn’t go into the nature of the issues, citing privacy concerns.
The presence of Rosebush at the academy inspired a response from the American Military Partners Association and the Human Rights Campaign, which both called for the removal of the “ex-gay” practitioner from the school.
“It’s stunning that Air Force Academy officials think it’s even remotely appropriate to have someone like Mike Rosebush in a leadership position,” HRC’s Fred Sainz said. “While it’s positive that some cadets feel the culture at the Academy is welcoming to openly LGB people, it’s undeniable that Mike Rosebush’s toxic views send a harmful message that there is something fundamentally wrong with being gay.”
In addition to these problems, other issues remain unresolved, such as the inability of transgender service members to serve openly in the military.
AMPA’s Peters said one pathway to accommodate many of the problems faced by gay service members is the codification of an explicit non-discrimination clause in the military’s equal opportunity policy — a request the Pentagon has repeatedly rebuffed.
“A reliable and trustworthy system must be in place to address incidents of inappropriate discrimination against gay and lesbian service members and to foster command climates that are supportive of all military families,” Peters said. “Inclusion of orientation in the non-discrimination policy would send a strong message that all service members, regardless of their sexual orientation or the gender of their spouse, deserve fair and equal treatment.”
Marc Mazzone, a spokesperson for the LGBT military group SPART*A, said new issues are entering the public dialogue following repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Supreme Court decision against DOMA.
“The recent news gives a very loud and clear message we are moving into a dialogue on how to battle discrimination in its newest forms throughout the military, and we will be working to find a strong resolution to these problems to ensure all service members and spouses receive fair and equal treatment and benefits they are entitled to,” Mazzone said.
UPDATE: Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, responded to the Blade’s request to comment on the issues facing gay service members in the post-”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after the posting of this article.
“The President remains proud of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which has strengthened our national security and upholds the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend,” Inouye said. “We are confident that the Department, under Secretary Hagel’s leadership, will ensure that all service members are treated with dignity and respect.”