The Benefits Battle
Few events in this country rival the pomp and circumstance of those held in the White House’s East Room. As the last of the cherry blossoms fell in D.C. this spring, military leaders mingled with the likes of Arianna Huffington and Tom Brokaw as a pianist in uniform played languid jazz numbers on a 1938 Steinway concert grand piano. They had converged for the launch of Joining Forces, first lady Michelle Obama’s and Jill Biden’s broad initiative to bring awareness and support to military families, many who are burdened by multiple deployments in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Jill and I truly believe that if enough people across this great country realize just how much our military families do for us and if we look in our own lives to see what we can offer, then there is absolutely no limit to what we can do together to keep these families and our country strong,” Mrs. Obama told the guests after remarks from the president.
Though undeniably laudable in its goals, Joining Forces inadvertently highlighted the plight of some military spouses, which the White House was unwilling to address: Advocates for gay military spouses and families, who shoulder unique and unquestionably significant challenges, were not invited to the East Room kickoff. A spokeswoman for Mrs. Obama made clear that concerns for gay military families would indeed be addressed once “don’t ask, don’t tell” was no longer the law of the land. Repeal certification is expected in early fall. That did little to assuage many in the movement who felt a symbolic opportunity had been squandered. But the White House gaffe also illuminates just how uncharted the post-DADT territory is when it comes to supporting the partners and families of gay service members. Same-sex partners of those in the armed forces are barred from accessing vital benefits, such as health care, as the result of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law now being challenged in multiple lawsuits as well as House and Senate repeal bills. (The House Republican leadership, however, intends to defend DOMA after the Obama administration declared earlier this year that it would not.)
One man, whose partner is an active-duty service member, says the slights against people like him are wide-ranging, including even simple access to commissaries. “At the moment, I can’t even buy a stamp on base,” says David (he asked that his last name not be used). “That’s pretty sad. Our primary interest is just being treated the same as other military families. We’re not looking for anything novel beyond that.”
How the Pentagon seeks to find solutions that will put gay spouses on equal footing remains to be seen. “To be a partner of an active military person is an amazing thing—it’s a pride-filling endeavor,” David says. “We have made it work for a long time without any assistance. But we will not be invisible.”