—By Adam Serwer
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is dead. But the fight for equality in the military is nowhere near finished. While the official end of DADT at midnight on Monday is a historic turning point, unresolved issues with the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and military regulations mean that service members and their partners in same-sex relationships will continue to suffer second-class treatment.
Stephen Peters knows what it’s like to live a lie, both as a serviceman and as a serviceman’s partner. In 2007, he was discharged under DADT after informing his commanding officer that he was gay. Peters had just reenlisted in the Marines—but he didn’t want to hide who he was anymore.
“I had a picture of a girl from back home that I was friends with, and I’d tell people she was my girlfriend. I’d make up stories about when I went out with my friends on the weekends, creating this persona that doesn’t exist,” Peters says. “I just went to my company commander and explained to him that I happened to be gay and I didn’t want to get out; I wanted to continue to serve, but I didn’t want to have to create those daily lies.”
He was distraught over his discharge—as was some of his conservative, religious family—but at least he would no longer have to pretend. Then he fell in love with another Marine.
“It was like going back into the closet,” Peters says. “I’d have to go to work and pretend I was single, pretend I didn’t have a family.” Staying on a direct career path was hard, because his partner getting a new assignment meant he’d have to abruptly pick up and leave. “When I had to quit, I’d have to make up some crazy excuse why I was moving halfway across the country without having another job.”
As of Tuesday, Peters won’t have to hide his life from his coworkers anymore and neither will his partner. But many of the hardships that he and other same-sex partners of service members have faced will remain, because of legal restrictions that prevent same-sex couples from receiving the same benefits that married, heterosexual service members get. That includes health care benefits, help finding work, and financial assistance that eases the difficulty of moving and paying for a new home. Same-sex couples won’t be eligible for the additional pay given to partners when a service member is given an assignment that prevents his or her family from coming along. They won’t have access to family-support services provided by the military that often serve as crucial conduits of information regarding what forms of assistance are available and how to take advantage of them.
And, when a service member makes the ultimate sacrifice, his or her partner will be denied the same financial support that heterosexual families receive. Unless the two had children together, the partner may not even be the first to know about the death.
“We still have to go through the sacrifice of giving up jobs, houses, families and friends,” says Laurence Watts, whose long-term partner is in the Navy. “But we don’t get the safety net that’s there to make sure that kind of responsibility doesn’t drive you crazy.” Watts’ situation is also unique because he’s a British citizen, which meant an even more difficult scenario: When his partner was deployed to Afghanistan, he had to move back to Great Britain. Noncitizen spouses of heterosexual service members are on the fast track for a green card—but first DADT and now DOMA prevent same-sex partners from having the same privileges.
DOMA, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, is to blame for some of this. (The Obama administration concluded in February that DOMA was unconstitutional and has ceased defending it in court, but it remains in force.) In June 2009, President Obama directed federal agencies to extend as many benefits as possible to same-sex couples. But for service members, slightly different legal language governing the military prevents the Department of Defense from doing what the State Department—whose employees have similar obligations in terms of being forced to relocate—were able to do in extending as many benefits as possible to families headed by same-sex partners.
“The State Department has a lot more regulatory flexibility,” explains David McKean, legal director at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.