Dana Rudolph

Repealing DADT Is Only the First Step

Filed By Dana Rudolph | May 11, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Aubrey Sarvis, Dan Choi, Don't Ask Don't Tell, military, rachel maddow, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, sldn

IAmerican Flag flying-thumb-240x240-1646.jpg wrote this back in February for 365gay.com, but it seemed timely to repost it here (with slight updates) in light of the Army National Guard's recent dismissal of West Point graduate and Arabic linguist Lt. Dan Choi under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (He was on the Rachel Maddow Show last week.)

Although the timetable for repealing DADT is perhaps iffier than when I first wrote the piece, there are glimmers of hope, as Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, writes at HuffPo. Regardless of when DADT is repealed--and yes, I say when, not if--it will raise a host of additional questions regarding the recognition of same-sex families, as I explain below.

(For more on LGBT families in the military, see my 2008 interview with an active-duty military officer and her spouse who are raising two children while needing to remain closeted.)

The LGBT community is abuzz with the possibility that President Obama will repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. This is a necessary and important step towards equality for LGBT Americans and enabling our military to recruit and retain qualified personnel.

Repealing DADT, however, is only the first step--albeit the most important one--towards equality for LGBT servicemembers. Unless the federal government not only permits openly lesbian and gay servicemembers, but also recognizes their families, we are asking those servicemembers to defend our country with a fraction of the support given to non-LGBT personnel.

The military takes family support very seriously. Army companies, for example, each contain a Family Readiness Group, "an official command sponsored organization of Family Members, volunteers, and Soldiers belonging to a unit, that together provide an avenue of support and assistance. This network of communication between Family Members, volunteers, the chain of command, and community resources, is for Soldier and Family readiness."

Military families get an extensive set of benefits and resources, including medical and dental insurance, group life insurance, higher pay and housing allowances for servicemembers with spouses or children, coverage for family moving expenses, temporary on-base housing until they find a home, and emergency financial relief funds through four private, nonprofit societies that manage these funds for each branch of the service. On an everyday basis, spouses can buy groceries and goods just above cost at the on-base commissary and Post Exchange (PX).

Spouses and children may enroll in the Survivor Benefit Plan, which pays a monthly annuity upon the servicemember's death. They are also eligible for Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, with coverage up to $100,000 for a spouse and $10,000 for a child.

The frequent relocations of military life make it hard for a spouse to hold a continuous job. Non-military spouses are generally not considered residents of the state in which their active-duty spouse resides, and are thus ineligible for many state benefits like unemployment compensation. Spouses can, however, apply for Military Spouse Scholarships and other financial aid towards training and education for "portable" careers.

Military bases also offer a plethora of support groups and services for spouses and children when a servicemember is deployed, has been injured or killed, or is dealing with the transition back from combat. On a more casual basis, access to on-base facilities puts spouses and children in a community of others who understand the stresses of military life. The military also protects spouses and children with a program dedicated to the prevention and treatment of abuse.

When a family has children, support extends in other ways, such as free New Parent Support Programs, where Registered Nurses and Licensed Medical Social Workers give advice on pregnancy, parenting, and more through home visits, classes, support groups and referrals to community services.

Children of military personnel may also take part in accredited, on-base childcare programs, or in some cases, off-base childcare at the lower on-base rate. (The military runs the largest employer-supported childcare program in the U.S.) On-base schools are not only convenient, but provide a peer group of other children and youth dealing with the frequent dislocations and concerns of life in a military family. The military also offers children a full range of after-school support groups and recreational activities.

There are special college scholarships for children of military families, and free SAT/ACT test preparation. Should the children choose public universities, they pay in-state college tuition rates in either their home state or state of their parent's duty assignment.

The catch to all this? Spouses must be recognized by the federal government. Children must be legal children of the servicemember. This means that even after the repeal of DADT, same-sex spouses will not qualify for the benefits above. If the non-military spouse is the biological or adoptive parent and the couple is resident in a state that does not permit second-parent adoptions, the children would not qualify for benefits, either.

Soberingly, when the worst happens, only spouses, blood relatives, or adoptive relatives can handle the disposition of remains for a deceased servicemember.

With the repeal of DADT, it is reasonable to assume more lesbian and gay servicemembers will choose to stay in the service longer. They would thus be more likely to have a spouse and/or children at some point in their military careers, making the recognition of their relationships a growing issue.

The wording of final legislation to repeal DADT is still up in the air, but the version currently in the House, H.R. 1283, is clear, however, that benefits for families of lesbian and gay servicemembers are not up for consideration: "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to require the furnishing of dependent benefits in violation of section 7 of title 1, United States Code (relating to the definitions of 'marriage' and 'spouse' and referred to as the 'Defense of Marriage Act')."

Hillary Clinton has already agreed to provide same-sex partners of State Department employees with the same benefits and protections as opposite-sex spouses. President Obama has said he will work to repeal DOMA, but has not yet set a timetable.

Let me stress, therefore: We need to stay focused on repealing DADT and not try to work broader family rights for lesbian and gay servicemembers into it right now. As much as it hurts to read the DOMA clause in the anti-DADT legislation, it seems a prudent move at this point in order for the measure to have any chance of success.

At the same time, we should be mindful that family rights for military personnel will be an upcoming challenge--and perhaps an opportunity. The repeal of DADT could highlight the need to enact federal relationship-recognition and adoption rights for every American, if only to ensure that all servicemembers have equal benefits for their families.

In 2007, senior Army leaders, and leaders of every Army installation worldwide, publicly signed the Army Family Covenant, a pledge to support soldiers' families. It says in part, "We recognize the strength of our Soldiers comes from the strength of their Families."

If we are to remain the world's strongest military power, therefore, we must support the families of all servicemembers. Once DADT is no more, we can do no less.

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You hit upon one of my biggest concern of repealing DADT without providing family benefits. My father was in the military and I was in the military, so I seen first hand all the benefits afforded to families. It becomes an even bigger issue if the military person gets stationed for 3 years at a base that is not in a war zone.

Of course, the issue you didn't cover, but myself and others have is that when DADT is repealed, transgender military people will still be kicked out. Domestic partner benefits and transgender people are just not important enough to reword the bill. In my opinion, I feel that those in charge of sponsoring the bill and those pushing the bill are acting a lot like Oliver asking for more food. They're stuck in fear.

"Hey! Wake up! Bush is not President anymore!"

John Shields John Shields | May 11, 2009 12:40 PM

Very succinct article, thanks Dana. There will be many questions to be addressed after the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. But traditions, whether right or wrong, are steered like battleships - over time.

As a former officer in the U.S. military, I know the pain and agony of the military closet. I have felt the hurt when I was late coming home from flying a mission and all the other straight crewmembers had been notified that we'd be late, but my same-sex partner could not be. I saw it in his face, and felt it in his heart, more times than I can imagine.

That said, we have to first ensure the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell before we address all the questions Dana brings up. Getting on an airplane for a deployment overseas, watching all the wives and husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends - knowing that you and your partner had to say goodbye at home - hurts.

It's time to ensure the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, THIS YEAR. And not a moment later. As it hurts. All of us.

John Shields John Shields | May 11, 2009 12:43 PM

...that should have been "all my straight counterparts' partners would have been notified"... in the second paragraph. Sorry about that.

More and more I hear of this agony facing LGBT people with a same-sex partner. Sometimes I feel like crying because the pain and fear is so vivid. I just hope that relationships can survive the trials still ahead of us. You love goes out to you and your partner.

equalnotspecial | May 11, 2009 5:58 PM

DADT teaches prejudice, and uses our tax dollars to do it. We will never reach full equality as long as our government continues to teach that it is not only acceptable but necessary to treat us as less than equal. Please, write, call, e-mail, or whatever you do, to Obama and your representatives. Repeal is a must, and the sooner the better. It won't happen if we don't demand it.

And how about some help demanding equal rights from those many people who purport to "love us"?

Unfortunately, just as so many people SAY "I Support the Troops" (but when you ask them WHAT they have actually DONE to support the troops it is often ABSOLUTELY NOTHING), too many are SAYING "I Support Gay Rights" but DO nothing that actually helps us.

So if our heterosexual friends and family and co-workers TRULY support us, they need to pick up the phone more than ONCE this month (or year) and CALL THEIR SENATORS. Their inaction and silence has been hurting us for decades...and even kills us.

It is maddening that they can hear of our stories but just brush it off as "that's just how things are now". The Heterosexual Majority is the group that is primarily responsible for our suffering. We've been demanding rights for decades; they have been silent.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 11, 2009 10:30 PM
"This is a necessary and important step towards equality for LGBT Americans and enabling our military to recruit and retain qualified personnel."

I agree with the first item about equality but since when was it the business of Democrats in the LGBT communities to promote military recruitment, to justify in any way the world’s record holder for killing civilians from Vietnam to Pakistan or to endorse Obama’s wars of aggression in South Asia.

Instead of fluffing our paytriotic feathers in favor of “remain(ing) the world's strongest military power” we should demand the immediate, total and permanent withdrawal of US military forces, secret police and mercenaries from the region. You can do one or the other, but not both.

Does the slogan “No Blood for Oil” only apply to straights? Does anyone, even Democrats, think that most GLBT folks support that illegal, awful war with its growing tolls of GI deaths, non-fatal casualties and suicides and it's genocidal levels of civilian deaths?

Why is it necessary for pro-war Democrats to try to give the impression that our entire movement supports the war when it manifestly does not. I suspect that a poll would show that like most GIs and US civilians, GLBT folks oppose the war. When they find out that Obama is Nixon in drag and that Afghanistan is the new Cambodia they're going to oppose it even more.

I should be clear: I do not support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. I don't think there's any contradiction, however, in being both anti-war and in favor of equality for all who serve in our military.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | May 12, 2009 2:41 PM

I agree, Dana but it's is not the business of our movement to support militarism. "If we are to remain the world's strongest military power, therefore, we must support the families of all servicemembers."

Saying that "Unless the federal government not only permits openly lesbian and gay servicemembers to defend our country..." implies that the real role of the US military is defending us. It most certainly is not. The military is used to steal resources around the world and to kill those who get in the way.

In the 1930's Major General Smedley Butler retired from his post as Commandant, USMC. At the time of his death, he was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Speaking of the role of the US military he said

"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service... as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism... Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

The US military brass plays the same role today and so far the two wars have sacrificed the lives of 4976 GI's and wounded over 30,000 more. Thousands more commit suicide. “A November 2007 CBS News investigation… found that 120 veterans kill themselves every week–over 5,000 per year… “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s… veterans” of all wars, said the VA’s chief of mental health, Ira Katz.” http://www.workers.org/2009/us/gi_suicides_0212/

The US has no legitimate interests in South Asia and all US military forces should be immediately withdrawn. If the military misleadership wants to defend Americans let assign GIs to support strikes and prevent foreclosures and repos.