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Gay Pride: Will military lead way in ushering equality for LGBT?

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor
Aaron Jansen illustration

A year and a half after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” US military officials in a standing-room-only Pentagon auditorium celebrated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.

For Sue Fulton, a US Army veteran and 1980 graduate of West Point, it was a time to “really celebrate the professionalism of the force in handling the repeal so well” – at an event that would have until quite recently been unimaginable.

“You know, a lot of people seem surprised that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal went so smoothly,” Ms. Fulton, a panelist at the event this week, told the audience. “And for a moment, I was one of them.”

The Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, reflected on the months of investigation into whether the repeal was feasible, as well as on the service members who “had started off skeptics and had become satisfied that our military can do this,” he said.

“By the end of the 10 month study – during which I think we actually saw attitudes shift as we stirred the pot on this issue – we had the overwhelming sense that, with proper education and leadership, the military could be ready for this change,” Mr. Johnson said.

Yet though senior military officials have marveled at the ease of transition, they acknowledge that the repeal also “exposes certain inequalities” – as Johnson put it, between spousal benefits for heterosexual US troops and those for homosexual troops who are also in legal partnerships. “This troubles our leaders,” he told the audience at the Pentagon LGBT event.

For this reason, the Pentagon is studying which benefits could be extended to the legal partners of gay troops. Many benefits that spouses of heterosexual troops enjoy – such as new GI Bill benefits and access to base medical care – are prohibited for gay spouses under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

“Though the Department of Justice has said it will not defend the constitutionality of DOMA in court,” Johnson noted, “until final resolution of that issue, adherence to that law is basic for the military and central to our efforts.”

In the meantime, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, has introduced a bill to “ensure equality” for military and veteran benefits “for all military spouses.”

It endeavors to circumvent DOMA provisions by changing the definition of spouse in federal documents: “An individual shall be considered a ‘spouse’ if the marriage of the individual is valid in the state in which the marriage was entered into.”

The bill is expected to gain little traction in the Republican-controlled House.

For now, there are other steps the Pentagon can take, says Fulton, a founding board member of OutServe, an association for active-duty gay and lesbian military personnel.

This includes, for starters, giving partners access to base facilities like the gym, day-care center, and grocery store – known as the commissary in military parlance.

These privileges can be granted at the discretion of base commanders in many cases, and they do not require partners to be labeled as legal spouses.

Other benefits, such as new GI Bill benefits, can go to partners of gay troops only through changes in federal law – initiatives that the Obama administration has promised to take up in the months to come.