Service Members Demand Benefits for Same-Sex Partners
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) has introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that, if passed, will extend more than 70 military benefits to same-sex spouses of veterans and active military service members.
"While the repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a tremendous step forward, there is more that can be done to ensure that the rights of all of our services members and their spouse, regardless of whether they are of the same-sex or opposite-sex as the service member, are protected," said Smith in a recent statement.
The HR 6046 bill, known as the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2012, will make changes to the definition of spouse as defined in Titles 10, 32, 37, and 38 of the US Code to recognize state definitions of the term spouse. As it stands, same-sex military couples are denied access to a wide range of military benefits including insurance, survivor benefits and increased housing allowances.
"What this bill does is simple: if veterans or service members have a spouse of the same-sex, then their spouse will be afforded the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts," said Smith. "Spouses of service members should not be prevented from receiving the benefits they have earned simply because they are the same sex as their partner. This discriminatory practice must come to an end."
The Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2012 tackles the unique problem faced by LGBT service members trying to access benefits for their spouses. Since military benefits are provided by statute, the changes this bill is set to make are necessary to ensure equal access for all military service members.
A plan for creating a companion bill in the U.S. Senate is also underway, although nothing has been confirmed at this point. The bill itself has benefited from the input and expertise of local D.C. organizations including the Human Rights Campaign and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).
"SLDN has worked closely with the sponsor to put forth a bill that would alleviate inequalities for gay, lesbian, and transgender service members," said SLDN Communications Director Zeke Stokes.
According to Stokes, the response to the announcement of this bill has been extremely positive from not only LGBT service members, but also their straight counterparts, who are outraged with the inequalities and commanders that are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with administering a two-tier system.
SLDN is known for being both an outspoken advocate and resource for the LGBT military community. The organization specializes in providing free legal counseling to service members facing legal issues based on discrimination of their sexual orientation or gender presentation.
During the repeal process of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, SLDN worked with OutServe, an association of more than 5,000 actively-serving LGBT military personnel worldwide, to bring the voices of LGBT service members to the Pentagon and serve as a firewall to protect gay and lesbian service members who want to share their stories without outing themselves and facing possible discharge.
Judge Advocate General Fights for Same-Sex Partner Benefits
SLDN’s involvement in the introduction of this bill is part of the organization’s dual-pronged strategy, which focuses on confronting the issues of LGBT inequality through both the legislature and the courts. While the bill makes its way through the legislative process, SLDN is also tackling the issue through litigation via the landmark case of McLaughlin v. Panetta.
Filed in 2011, the case challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Titles 10, 32 and 38 of the US Code. With the addition of Title 37, these are the same sections of U.S. Code that the Military Spouses Equal Treatment is intended to change. The plaintiffs in the case are all legally married and collectively possess over 150 years of military service.
Major Shannon McLaughlin, the lead plaintiff of the case, serves as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) and is a United States Army Major in the Massachusetts National Guard. She and her wife Casey recently celebrated their anniversary and are proud mothers of a set of 19-month-old twins, Grace and Grant. Under current military policy, however, they are "legal strangers" and thus do not have access to the same military benefits afforded to straight military couples and families.
According to Maj. McLaughlin, the differences between straight and LGBT couples were apparent right away.
"When soldiers marry it’s seen as an event. Normally, soldiers run over to personnel to declare their spouses as dependents so they can have access to benefits, be declared as next of kin and get military ID cards to access the base," said McLaughlin.
But under DOMA and the current definition of spouses in the U.S. Code, Casey McLaughlin cannot be listed as McLaughlin’s primary next of kin, receive coverage under McLaughlin’s insurance, or access the base without significant difficulty. Casey’s inability to access the base, and thus the discounted food and supplies normally available to military families, presents a significant financial strain.
While McLaughlin has experienced an outpouring of support from her coworkers regarding her involvement with the SLDN case, it has not been entirely without conflict. According to McLaughlin, there was a sense of disappointment among leadership regarding her "actions and decisions in 2011." She also said that a superior who alluded to her involvement in the case threatened her with a poor evaluation. The official evaluation is still pending and only time will tell if the threat becomes actuality.
Meanwhile, efforts are in place to highlight the current challenges that LGBT service members face. One such effort is the "Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry," joint campaign by Freedom to Marry, a nonprofit working toward the overturning of DOMA and educating the public about LGBT families and SLDN.
The campaign’s current highlight is on the family of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, her wife Karen, and their daughter Casey. Morgan is another plaintiff in the McLaughlin v. Panetta case and is currently battling stage four breast cancer. Currently, Morgan’s wife and child would not be entitled to survivor benefits upon her death.
There are multiple outlooks on the Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act’s prospects and its role in the overall fight for LGBT rights.
"The biggest hurdle to the bill is the anti-gay House leadership which has shown no interest in advancing pro-LGBT legislation and in fact has been actively working against the community by defending DOMA," said Human Rights Campaign Director of Communications Michael Cole-Schwartz. "Getting rid of DOMA would certainly be a welcome step and would largely negate the need for individual bills like this addressing specific inequalities. But these steps along the way are important tools to educate lawmakers on the profound impact DOMA has on our families."
Jo Deutsch, federal director of Freedom to Marry, noted that very little is currently moving in Congress, but stated that the time is spent educating legislators and the public on its effects. She also emphasized the huge impact that involvement by the public can have by simply calling their congress members.
Stokes also noted that the bill highlights the stories of service members providing first class service while receiving second class treatment.
"The purpose is to plant a marker in the sand," said Stokes. "It’s hard for anyone to argue that people who are fighting and dying for this country should be treated differently than their straight counterparts."
For more info, visit http://www.sldn.org/