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Family life
during wartime

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?

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."

In the field, military personnel have no assurance of safe havens in which to discuss the difficulties of being separated from civilian partners. Gay service members cannot be assured of discretion when they confide in military chaplains, and a soldier's disclosure of sexual orientation to a mental health professional is not protected by physician-patient privilege.

The daily mail call is the only sure lifeline of support for soldiers stationed abroad, but gay and lesbian service members face considerable epistolary anxieties. Since letters and E-mail messages are subject to interception by censors, gay soldiers and their partners must use cunning to encode their messages of love for one another.

Adam says he and John communicate in writing, not by phone, "because you're able to make sure that [an E-mail or a letter] says what you want to say but doesn't say things that you can't say. In an E-mail you can correct for the spontaneity of what you might say in a phone conversation."

After Adam writes an E-mail to John, he goes back through and reads it to "see what I need to change to make it pass muster if somebody in the military were to intercept it." And when he gets E-mail from John, he says, "I just have to be able to read between the lines, what's not being said, and what he must be thinking and also wanting to say, even if it's not there in writing. I try to put each of his E-mails in the context of our relationship."

For example, he says he can't close his letters with the word Love although he admits, "I didn't have to go through the process of writing it to know that I couldn't say that." Even innocuous reports of his social life are challenging, because most of his friends are gay, he says. "When I write about our friends and what I've done with them, I have to make it pass the test of, Could this be the kind of interaction that one of John's buddies at home would be having with a group of straight male friends?" Adam says. "There aren't many references to women in my E-mails, so I can't accurately describe what I did on a weekend out without thinking about whether it implies that I'm gay."

Other civilian partners employ more byzantine techniques for communicating. Paul has enlisted a female friend to handwrite his letters to Ken and send pictures of herself, posing as his girlfriend--so that if military censors intercept these letters, they will think Ken is straight. In each letter they send a snapshot of the woman with Paul, whom she identifies as her brother.

When asked how it feels to be forced to camouflage his expressions of love in a woman's hand, Paul counters with a question of his own: "Remember what happened to that kid at Fort Campbell?" he asks, referring to the 1999 antigay murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell in Kentucky. "That's what Ken's deathly afraid of. That's why we go to the measures we go to--because he's afraid of getting beat up. He says his unit is highly homophobic. They are talking trash all the time. He has to play the game. And he does."

It's a prudent concern. So far the military has issued no stop-loss orders (which prevent service members from separating from the armed forces under certain conditions) that would suspend discharges based on "don't ask, don't tell." If a deployed soldier is discovered to be gay, discharge for homosexual conduct would require investigation and would likely be a low priority during combat. As a result, gay service members whose sexual identity is revealed could be placed at risk of abuse or violence at the hands of their fellow soldiers.

Paul, a registered Republican who describes himself as "very patriotic," says that although he fears for his partner's safety and he feels lonely without him, he is proud that Ken is fighting for his country. And the codes and veiled language that shield their love from public sight still allow for some small experiences of emotional connection. "I got my first letter from him yesterday. I sat in the middle of the road right by the mailbox, crying, and read it twice," he says. His voice is deep, and his speech, with a thick Southern accent, comes slowly. "I have to say, I am not a queen," he says. "But I do cry when I have to."

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