Family life during wartime

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is keeping America’s gay soldiers in the closet as they fight overseas—but what is it doing to the loved ones they’ve left behind?

BY Michael Joseph Gross

April 15 2003 12:00 AM ET

Around
Valentine’s Day, the 82nd Airborne was deployed to
Kuwait from Fort Bragg, N.C., where TV crews broadcast
heart-wrenching scenes of soldiers bidding farewell to
their families. Ken, an enlisted man in his early 20s,
left with his battalion that day, but he had said goodbye to
his boyfriend, Paul, the night before, many miles off base.

Paul, a computer
technician in his 30s, watched the TV coverage from Fort
Bragg that day. “To see them, all those soldiers with
their wives and children,” he says,
“kissing them and holding them and telling them how
they’ll be home in six months, and know that Ken
didn’t get to have that and I didn’t get
to have that—I’m a very self-contained person;
I hold stuff in—but watching that, it made me
upset. It’s not fair at all.”

(Ken and
Paul’s names and identities, and those of other
soldiers and their partners quoted in this story, have
been changed to protect their anonymity.)

As enforced by
the military’s “don’t ask, don’t
tell” policy, silence is a fact of life for gay
and lesbian military personnel and their partners. The
number of soldiers affected by this policy is unknown, but
Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of
Sexual Minorities in the Military, a think tank at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, says a
conservative estimate is 60,000.

Difficult though
their silence can be, gay service members and their
partners have learned to live with the policy. Consider, for
example, the situation of Adam, a lawyer, who met his
boyfriend, John, a military officer, almost five years
ago. Adam and John, both in their 30s, have active
social lives and are known as a couple in their community.
Adam is out at work, and his colleagues know his
boyfriend, and they know that his boyfriend is a
soldier. Adam says he and John are “careful about who
we associate with” and that they’re willing to
make compromises to abide by “don’t ask,
don’t tell” for one very simple reason:
“John loves his job.”

The situation is
similar for Heather, 26, and her partner, Laura, 40, who
has been in the Army since the pair met in college 8 1/2
years ago. “When we first got together I was
very concerned about [“don’t ask, don’t
tell”],” Heather says. “But I have
grown more comfortable and at times we just sort of
say, ‘We’re going to live our lives and not be
ashamed of who we are and our love for each
other.’”

But the limited
social freedom that John, Laura, and other military
personnel enjoy with their loved ones in peacetime
disappears in times of war. “Partners who are
gay, lesbian, and bisexual become completely
invisible,” says Sharra Greer, legal director for the
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal
assistance group for people affected by the
military’s antigay policy. Deployment into conflict
changes the shape of the silence enforced by
“don’t ask, don’t tell,” she
says, and also raises its stakes. “Civilian
partners can’t even acknowledge what they’re
going through to anyone outside their closest circle of
friends for fear of destroying their military
partners’ careers.”

Furthermore,
Greer says, deployment forces partners to confront a whole
new set of questions, such as: Will I be contacted if my
partner is wounded, missing, or killed in action? What
if there’s a family emergency at home? What if
I’m in the hospital and my partner needs to be
notified?

Although naming
someone of the same sex on an emergency contact card or
as beneficiary of a military life insurance policy does not
constitute a violation of “don’t ask,
don’t tell,” many service members and their
partners decide that such designations are still risky.

Due in part to
the need for discretion in settling these and other legal
matters, including power of attorney, prior to deployment,
SLDN is handling an unprecedented onslaught of
requests for assistance this year. From January 1 to
March 1, SLDN received a record 170 calls for
help—30% more than in the same period last
year.

After negotiating
legal preparations for soldiers’ deployment, civilian
partners find themselves cut off from all material and
emotional support that the military provides for
straight spouses. The military issues a Dependent
Identification Card to married spouses of soldiers, which
enables them to freely enter and leave base and to use
facilities and services such as the commissary, Judge
Advocate General, chaplains, postal exchange, and
recreation and education centers. Although none of
these privileges are accorded to same-sex partners, gay and
lesbian soldiers can go grocery shopping and do other
errands on base for their civilian partners during
peacetime.

When the military
partner is deployed, however, gay civilian partners’
access to these resources is cut off completely. In an
E-mail interview, Daniel, the president of Gay and
Lesbian Service Members for Equality, a group of
active-duty soldiers pursuing repeal of “don’t
ask, don’t tell,” wrote that civilian
partners “may not seek legal counsel at the JAG
office, they cannot seek grief counseling from a chaplain
when their partner is injured or killed, and they
cannot use the benefits of reduced prices at the PX
and commissary.”

Moreover, he
wrote, civilian partners are cut off from the military
community when off post. “Typically, families of
deployed soldiers create a family readiness group.
This group will publish a regular newsletter with
information about what their spouse’s unit is doing,
and important numbers to call, like the rear
detachment officer,” an officer from the unit
who stays behind and can notify family members when a
service member is injured or killed.

The family
readiness group also organizes donation drives to send
supplies to deployed soldiers and hosts social activities,
like family basketball games, to maintain a sense of
community among those left behind. Of course, partners
of gay and lesbian service members can’t attend
these gatherings.

The disparity
between support options available to same-sex partners
versus those available to straight spouses only became more
obvious March 21, when the United States’s
strongest ally in the Iraq war, the United Kingdom,
announced that the unmarried partners of soldiers killed in
combat, including same-sex partners, would be eligible for
pension payments. “The government is aware of
the concerns of service personnel whose unmarried
partners are currently ineligible for pension
benefits,” U.K. junior defense minister Lewis
Moonie said in a statement announcing the policy
change. “We have concluded that it would be
appropriate to address now the particular risks
associated with each conflict.”

For Adam, there
is bitter irony in being exiled from the military’s
support systems. “The military is known for the
fabled strength of the community and how they all
stand together,” he says. “[Gay and lesbian
soldiers and their partners] have to support each other in a
more ad hoc kind of way.”

The TV coverage,
in particular, has made it difficult for Heather to not
have that community support. “The information that
came out not too long ago, about the female POWs, that
really hit home,” she says. “And when
they started talking about the people who have been killed
and their surviving husbands, wives, and their
children. I just thought, What if something
happened to her?”

Adam says he
worries less about his own emotional well-being than about
his partner’s. “All of a sudden he’s
cut off from his very closest support network and not
in a position to discuss that with the guys he’s
deployed with,” Adam says. “It isn’t
that John can’t function in a predominantly
straight world as a straight person would. He does that in
his job all day long. But trying to put myself in his shoes,
I worry about him trying to do that nonstop, without
the ability to talk freely with his partner, even in
E-mails and letters, to say everything that
he’d like to say.”

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