One Year Following DADT Repeal, Gay Service Members Still Lack Equal Benefits

Our guest blogger is Crosby Burns, Research Associate for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

Maj. Shannon McLaughlin and her wife Casey are suing for military benefits to protect their family.

Yesterday our nation celebrated the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), marking the first time in our nation’s history gay men and women have been able to serve their country openly, honestly, and without fear of punishment.

Unsurprisingly, the transition to open service has proceeded smoothly over the past twelve months, despite doomsday predictions by supporters of the gay ban. In fact, the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California Santa Barbara, found that DADT repeal has “enhanced the military’s ability to pursue its mission.”

One year later our armed forces are stronger thanks to the honorable service of openly gay men and women. Our military no longer turns away Americans willing to serve their country because of their sexual orientation. Our military no longer forces out otherwise qualified troops — including those with “mission critical” skills such as engineers or Arabic linguists — simply because they are gay. And our military no longer squanders millions of taxpayer dollars to enforce a flawed policy that asks troops to lie about who they are.

Even in a post-DADT world, however, not all is equal for gay and lesbian troops.

Unfortunately, these servicemembers are denied access to the same benefits afforded to their straight counterparts. The primary reason for this inequitable access is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that defines marriage solely as the union between one man and one woman. Under this exclusive definition, same-sex couples — even those who are legally married — cannot access a range of federal benefits normally afforded to married couples, including government programs and tax breaks.

For gay members of the armed forces, DOMA’s restrictive definition of “spouse” prohibits the government from offering a number of benefits to same-sex partners (and potentially to their children) because those benefits are governed by federal laws . These include critical services, such as health  insurance, housing allowances, and other benefits designed to help troops weather the stresses of repeated deployments and military life.

Other benefits, however, are not directly linked to federal law and are instead governed by Pentagon regulations that, but that continue to tie certain benefits to the government’s restrictive definition of “spouse” under DOMA. Benefits in this category include access to legal services, on-base commissary and shopping privileges, and access to deployment and relocation assistance programs.  In the case of these benefits, the Pentagon can act now to immediately provide them for gay servicemembers.

For gay servicemembers to receive these benefits, the Pentagon must revise its regulations to ensure equitable access  regardless of the gender of servicemembers’ spouses. And the Pentagon is doing just that. Following the legislative repeal of DADT, the Pentagon began reviewing which benefits it could legally extend to servicemembers’ same-sex partners and spouses under existing laws. That review is ongoing.

With open service now a reality for one full year, the Pentagon should quickly complete its review and immediately extend all benefits possible under current law to gay servicemembers and their families. Until then, gay servicemembers will continue to serve their country, often putting themselves in harm’s way, while being denied the same benefits and privileges that are afforded to straight troops and their families.

Similarly, senior military officials should support efforts to repeal DOMA, both in Congress and in the courts. Only the end of DOMA will allow gay servicemembers to have equal access to all military benefits to which they are entitled.