Scroll To Top

Gay Partners of Congress Members Face Inequity


When the partner of freshman Colorado congressman Jared Polis went to get his Congressional Spouse ID last February at Member Services, he thought the new administration had dawned a new day for same-sex partners of Congress members.

"They just snapped my picture and wrote 'spouse' on it," recalled Marlon Reis, who celebrated his sixth anniversary with Polis in September, though the couple is not legally married. "It took all of five minutes -- it was so easy that it gave me the impression of a semipermanent policy change."

But the 28-year-old's attempt to join Polis in June on a congressional delegation (known as a "CODEL" in Hill-speak) was a different story entirely.

The U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Meeting was being held in Seattle as an opportunity for U.S. lawmakers to meet members of the Mexican congress, and the Defense Department was providing transport for the trip. The military routinely flies congressional delegations and under House rules, members can take their spouses with them if there's space on the aircraft (when CODELS fly commercially, spouses are responsible for their own airfare).

"A week before the CODEL, Jared's chief of staff contacted me to say that the military was trying to block my trip," Reis said.

In fact, Polis's chief of staff, Brian Branton, was jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops so that Reis would be able to accompany Polis on the flight to Seattle, just as several other spouses were doing.

"I just assumed naively that it wouldn't be an issue," said Branton, "but it was a huge hassle and the inequity was disturbing."

The delegation was scheduled to leave June 5, and on June 1, Branton received an e-mail from the Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Speaker's Office of Interparliamentary Affairs said Reis would be barred from travel because the Department of Defense doesn't allow members to take anyone who isn't a spouse.

Branton then called Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to find a fix for the problem and also contacted Rep. Tammy Baldwin's chief of staff, Bill Murat, who had encountered the same issue regarding travel for Baldwin's partner, Lauren Azar, a year earlier.

"After talking with Bill, I realized just how frustrating this was going to be,'" Branton remembered.

When Branton contacted the Department of Defense on June 2, Colonel Bill Tart told him the rules were dictated by the speaker's letter to DOD, which spells out the guidelines for who will be traveling in each individual CODEL and are mutually negotiated by the Department of Defense and the speaker's office.

The speaker's original authorization letter for the CODEL sent June 1 to DOD specified that eight members of Congress, including Polis, would be on the trip and that two of those members would be taking their spouses. Reis was not listed.

"Colonel Tart told me that if they had just put Reis in that June 1 letter, DOD wouldn't have questioned it," Branton explained, noting that he had provided the travel information for Polis and Reis to the speaker's office long before the June 1 letter went out.

However, CODEL participants often get added to the list piecemeal over the course of several days or weeks, and on June 3 the speaker's office followed up with a letter to the DOD, stating, "In addition to those previously listed, please note that Mr. Marlon Reiss [sic] has been invited to travel with the delegation."

Although that seemingly should have cleared the matter based on what Colonel Tart told Branton, the Speaker ultimately had to follow up with a onetime waiver for Reis on June 4.

"Pursuant to the procedure you suggested in the past, I am writing to notify you of my intention to use the waiver authority inherent in the Speaker's travel policies to authorize the travel of Mr. Marlon Reiss [sic] to accompany Jared Polis on a congressional delegation," Speaker Pelosi wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I request that you in turn use your waiver authority to facilitate Mr. Reiss's [sic] participation in the delegation."

Once he got the speaker's nod, not once but twice, Reis figured the trip was a go on June 5. "I was so sure that things were OK that I had packed my bags and gone to the Rayburn House Office Building where the buses were departing for the Air Force base," he said.

But around the same time that Reis was in transit to Rayburn, a Defense Department representative, Maj. Jason Bryan, stopped by Polis's office to inform Branton that Congressman Polis would have to reimburse the Pentagon for the cost of Reis's travel to the tune of $1,140.40. An hour later, Bryan called back and specified that unless the department received an advance check for the full amount, Reis would not be allowed to board the plane.

Branton tried to run interference. "I called the speaker's office again," he said, "then I ran to meet them at the bus to see what was going to happen. Sure enough, they were sort of blocking Marlon from getting on the bus."

Reis stood and watched as one of the supervising officers took Polis aside.

"They were politely arguing for about five minutes," said Reis, who describes himself as somewhat shy and not entirely comfortable in the spotlight.

"I always happen upon these things by accident," Reis explained. "I'm trying to do what other spouses do, and then my experience somehow differs. Each time it happens I feel awkward and exposed. I didn't know if I would be sent home, or if maybe I would get on the airplane and no one would talk to me."

Eventually, one of the leaders of the CODEL, Arizona representative Ed Pastor, joined Polis and convinced the officer to let Reis on the bus.

To date, Polis has not reimbursed the Department of Defense for the $1,140.40. Though Branton said DOD has yet to officially wave the fee, the department is not aggressively seeking the funds.

According to a spokesman for the speaker's office, Nancy Pelosi has had an ongoing dialogue about the issue with DOD ever she first became House speaker in 2007.

"She made a request of the Defense Department to treat any spouse of a lesbian or gay member of Congress the same as any congressional spouse. That means a domestic partner would be treated just as a congressional spouse," said Drew Hammill. "That in effect, has been our understanding and what we've been told will take place."

A Department of Defense official said congressional spouses are authorized to travel with a member for protocol purposes when stated in the committee or leadership authorization letter to the secretary of Defense. Who is in included in that authorization letter is up to the speaker's office, according to the DOD.

As for Reis, he is holding on to his Congressional Spouse ID, which expires in February of 2011, a little more tightly. Not long ago, he misplaced it and Branton was told by Member Services that they had issued it in error and would have to replace it with a Designee ID, which is the classification reserved for unmarried partners of members of Congress.

"Fortunately, Marlon ended up finding it," said Branton. "While the difference is just one word on an ID, it speaks volumes about Congress's unwillingness to fully and equitably recognize the relationships of gay men and women."

A Designee ID is what Representative Baldwin's partner, Azar, carries. When Reis bumped into her at an event earlier this year, he produced his Spouse ID to her amazement.

"She said, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe you got that,'" he recalled. "If I had known how important it was to hold on to this, I might have been more ginger in producing it every time I've been asked to show ID."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Kerry Eleveld