How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
For seventeen years the United States Military -- the world’s largest employer -- was allowed to discriminatorily hire and fire their workers. During those seventeen years, Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, and Gay (QUILTBAG) individuals within the rank-and-file of the military secreted themselves away in fear.
Fear of losing their livelihoods. Fear of retribution from their chains of command. Fear of violence being perpetuated against them. All because of who they are and who they choose to be with and love.
Sodomy has been against military law since the Revolutionary War, which is really too bad. If anyone needs to unwind a little, I think it’s the military. World War II saw official policy on homosexual individuals formed as we entered the war, and when psychiatric evaluations became part of the Military Enlistment Processing Center’s (MEPS) criteria, homosexuality was grounds for disqualification.
Then, we saw the introduction of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Don’t Pursue, but no one seemed to ever remember that part), which wanted to be the final wet blanket.
Seventeen months ago, the harmful and discriminatory policy, first enacted by President Bill Clinton as a so-called compromise, was repealed after no small amount of hemming and hawing by President Barack Obama, by Congress, and by high brass in the military itself. The decision did little to help service members who have already been discharged under the policy, such as Lieutenant Dan Choi, whose name has become almost synonymous with the move to repeal DADT. In theory, however, it should prevent further losses.
THE MILITARY IS DIVERSE
People from many walks of life enlist in the military for various reasons. The military is one of the most racially and culturally diverse organisations in the world. Women recruits are growing in number with more and more jobs opening up to them. Religious diversity is slowly being taken into account and expressions of that more and more welcome.
While the bulk of the enlisted forces don’t come from the poorest or wealthiest ten percent of recruits, most of them come from solidly middle class (and all the variations within that) backgrounds. I say this with a grain of salt, since we all know that wanting to be something and actually being it are different things. The military talks the talk of acceptance of diversity. The walk could use a little jaunt.
Military enlistment is an appealing option in an economy where jobs are difficult to obtain, harder to keep, and sometimes make livable wages and benefits a pipe dream. In boot camp we were told we had the world’s best job security. My RDCs probably forgot the part about how that doesn’t apply if you are part of the QUILTBAG community. But we were all pretty sleep deprived. Maybe they forgot.
So it stands to reason that seventeen months after a horrible seventeen year-old policy is repealed that I squealed when I received an email from my Navy Ombudsman: Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Leon E. Panetta recently announced (pdf) the decision to extend twenty-four new benefits to same-sex partners of service members.
PARTNER BENEFITS FOR ALL!
Many benefits including Service Member Group Life Insurance beneficiaries, Wounded Warrior Designated Caregiver, Casualty Notification, and determining who receives personal effects after death have always been available to anyone.
Service members are free to assign those services to anyone, no matter their relationship. Now, for the low, low price of filling out a declaration of domestic partnership, the expanded benefits previously only available to military spouses will be available as well.
Let’s face it, command exchange access, child and youth services, and sexual assault counseling services trump being able to send someone to a Yellow Ribbon Fund event. This expansion is needed, welcomed, and long overdue.
This extension is exciting. I want to be excited for it. From the inside, DADT’s repeal has been a very smooth transition, as new policy and training have supplemented the military’s goals towards zero tolerance for bigotry (however successful they’ve been). Part of this smooth transition stems from the rank-and-file being more in touch with the realities of today's military than the upper echelon brass or Congresspersons who make military policy.
We in uniform, we family members of uniformed personnel, already knew that some of our shipmates and battle buddies were part of the QUILTBAG community. We already knew that we worked together, fought together, and entrusted our lives to each other. We knew all along that we were professional enough to embrace this change. We simply needed policymakers to catch up.
Panetta expects the new benefits to be available by October, at the latest. It’s being called an ambitious timeline by Pentagon officials, and for good reason, since most policy changes of this magnitude can take a year or more to roll out. Unfortunately, benefits such as Command Sponsorship (allowing families to move and transfer to overseas duty stations when their member does on the government’s dime), medical, dental, and on-base housing benefits are not covered by this expansion.
...BUT IT'S NOT OVER YET
These things remain tethered to the Defense of Marriage Act, which precludes domestic partners from enjoying the benefits and protections of marriage. It purports that marriage can only be defined in a specific way, with “spouse” meaning one person married to one person of “the opposite sex”. This federal sanction overlaps into and prevents the military from truly making military families a priority, something they purport to do.
Panetta wrote “In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits.”
While marriage equality has never been my personal pet activist cause, the repeal of DOMA will pave the way for more protections and equality within our ranks and families. It will ensure that non-married partners, irrespective of sexual orientation, are equally taken care of. That is a pet cause of mine. Anything that protects the livelihoods of fellow QUILTBAG individuals, anything that helps them have the tools and resources they need to live, is a cause I can get behind.
I am not entirely disenchanted. Not yet. I will keep striving, keep pushing my Congresspersons, keep raising my voice for policy changes that will bring about a true culture of equality within the structures of military life. Our folks in uniform deserve nothing less for their sacrifices and service. They should never have to be ashamed of the person they love while serving the country they love.