The benefits afforded to the same-sex spouses of service members in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act emerged as a major theme among speakers during the Pentagon’s annual Pride event Wednesday, which featured a transgender emcee.
In the department’s first Pride celebration since the milestone court decision last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work hailed the extension of such benefits nationwide to service members with same-sex spouses.
“We believe that anyone and everyone who serves their country, or desires to serve their country as well as their families, should have all the benefits they deserve and have earned in accordance — and we did this simply because it was the right thing to do,” Work said.
After the DOMA decision, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the ruling would afford these spousal benefits — such as health care and housing benefits — to married service members, even in states without marriage equality.
In a panel following Work’s remarks, the importance of benefits became more apparent as representatives of same-sex military families spoke about their personal stories.
Kristen Hamilton-Brindee, the spouse of Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Kelly Hamilton-Brindee, talked about how the allocation of benefits afforded her crucial treatment after she was diagnosed with cancer at around the time Kristen gave birth to their child.
“I received my ID card four days before I went into the emergency room, and we found out that I had cancer,” Kristen Hamilton-Brindee said. “Having her chain of command know and having that ID card made a profound difference in our lives, and we’re very grateful that that happened in the sequence.”
As a result of the treatment afforded to her spouse, Kelly Hamilton-Brindee said her spouse has now been cancer-free for six months.
It was the third annual Pride celebration at the Pentagon, which have taken place since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in 2011. Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Under Secretary Eric Fanning, who’s gay, spoke at last year’s event, they didn’t make an appearance this year. Hagel was traveling overseas.
The event was an official Pentagon event and organized by the department a group of LGBT military and civilians called DOD Pride. The Pentagon provided some support to publicize the celebration.
Organizers of the event included a transgender emcee. Transgender people are still barred by medical regulation from serving openly in the U.S. military even with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” off the books.
The emcee for the event was Amanda Simpson, now executive director of Army Energy Initiatives Task Force and the highest-ranking transgender civilian official, who talked about her inability to serve on the uniform side of the military.
“I was recruited to serve with the Navy as a nuclear propulsion officer, but I couldn’t,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t desire to serve my country, it was because I had a secret that would make it extremely difficult, a secret that I didn’t have words for, and when words were spoken by others, it usually ended up with me being beaten up or hazed.”
The issue of transgender exclusion from the military has gained attention in recent months. After top military brass signed a Human Goals Charter in April that lacked any explicit mention of transgender individuals — either on the civilian or military side — transgender groups criticized the Pentagon for the omission.
In his address, Work suggested — either by mistake or possibly by referencing the civilian side — that the days of anti-transgender discrimination at the Pentagon are over in the aftermath of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“For far too long, gay and lesbian service members and their partners and families, and bisexual and transgender individuals in our department, were unable to serve,” Work said. “They were forced by law to compromise their values, to choose between serving the country they love and…being true to themselves. Today, we celebrate that that chapter in our history is now over.”
Hagel said during a recent interview on ABC’s “This Week” he thinks the U.S. military’s ban on open service “continually should be reviewed,” and the White House has announced it backs Hagel’s efforts. However, the Pentagon has announced no formal review of the policy.
Work invoked a transgender-inclusive military later in his speech, suggesting more work needs to be done without naming any particular action for transgender service.
“Because of the work of the LGBT service members and civilians for the department, I think the hurdles to their acceptance are growing smaller and smaller every day because all of these people have proven their great worth and that they should be primarily judged on their capabilities, but, as I said, we have more to do,” Work said.
Allyson Robinson, a transgender advocate and policy director for the LGBT military group SPART*A, attended the event and noted Work’s disconnect during his speech, calling for the review of transgender service to move forward.
“I appreciated Deputy Secretary Work’s reference to the values of integrity and inclusion that make our military strong, but I question his assertion that the days of anti-LGBT discrimination in DOD are gone and almost forgotten,” Robinson said. “For the 15,000 transgender people serving in uniform today, they are neither. The policy review suggested by Secretary Hagel and supported by President Obama needs to get underway now so we can finally bring those dark days to an end.”
Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partners Association, also attended and said the exclusion of transgender people from the military was noticeable at the event.
“Although not spoken, it was clearly evident that we still have progress to make,” Peters said. “The aproximately 15,000 service members who identify as transgender are still forced to serve in silence or risk ending their careers, which also impacts their families. We look forward to the day when the service of these brave Americans is honored as well.”
Others at the event were gay Arlington business owner Freddie Lutz, SPART*A communications director Sue Fulton and gay Virginia 8th district congressional candidate Adam Ebbin.
The panel concluding the event, which focused on LGBT military families, was moderated by Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay general officer in the U.S. military, included Kathy Moakler, who has a gay daughter and is government relations director for the National Military Family Association as well as Technical Sergeant Erwynn Umali-Behrens and his spouse Will Umali-Behrens.
Concluding the panel, Smith said the ability of LGBT service members serve authentically and openly with their families “is the essence of Pride.”
“It is Pride in your military identity, and the opportunity to serve as your authentic selves, the ability of the service members to fully and openly rely upon their family and access the same support structures that are available to any military family,” Smith said.