The Pentagon recently reiterated that gay and lesbian servicemembers will still not be treated equally even after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) is repealed because the Pentagon is prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages per the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and other military rules that ban same-sex marriage recognition — and no recognition means no spousal benefits.
The real impact of this is that soldiers in same-sex relationships will be denied on-base housing and expenses for off-base housing, certain health insurance coverage, certain death related benefits, legal counselling and a whole host of other provisions given to married opposite-sex couples.
With the number of gay and lesbian servicemembers in same-sex relationships set to rise, advocates are pointing out how this unequal treatment could, itself, impact morale and the well being of lesbian and gay troops. They say it will quickly add pressure for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Those opposed to both a DADT and DOMA repeal have already hit back saying that heterosexual troops might find it “offensive.”
“What’s pretty obvious is that there is going to be a collision soon between an open and integrated military and a federal law that prevents what I consider unit cohesion,” said Rick Jacobs, chairman and founder of the Courage Campaign, an advocacy group for gay men and lesbians in the military. “You will have different people treated very differently.”
But Elaine Donnelly, whose policy organization, the Center for Military Readiness, is opposed to ending the ban on openly gay troops, said extending equal benefits to same-sex couples would be not just costly but also offensive to some heterosexual couples. “These are things Congress should have considered last year before they voted to repeal the policy,” said Ms. Donnelly, the center’s president.
Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said the department was studying whether smaller benefits, like free legal services, could be extended to same-sex spouses. But she said there would be “no change” in eligibility for major benefits like housing and health care when “don’t ask, don’t tell” goes away.
“The Defense of Marriage Act and the existing definition of a “dependent” in some laws prohibit extension of many military benefits to same-sex couples,” she said.
The New York Times points out that there are certain benefits that can be secured, such as in the case of on-base housing where same-sex couples may be eligible if they have dependent children.
It is also important to stress that DOMA being struck down by the courts, as seems more likely in the near term than legislative action, would not remedy the benefits problem because the military is governed by other laws that would also have to be amended. Such a process could take years, though it is conceivable that, as suggested above, military officials may move to at least partially remedy this inequity by working around the restrictions imposed by the Defense of Marriage Act.
It cannot be denied, however, that until DOMA is repealed, gay and lesbian servicemembers will continue to be discriminated against and suffer a lesser status, at least institutionally, than their heterosexual counterparts. One might also venture that such unequal treatment cannot be good for unit cohesion either.