Important as it was, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” did not put gay and lesbian service members on an equal footing with their straight counterparts. A poignant story by Times staff writer Phil Willon described how partners of gay service members are still denied benefits available to other couples, including marriage bonuses and the right to seek joint deployments. Gay and lesbian partners of service members can’t even use the base commissary.
Superficially, this inequality can be rationalized. Couples who receive spousal benefits are married, while most gay and lesbian couples are unmarried. The problem with this distinction, of course, is that gays are barred from marrying in most states. Equally important is the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman. (It also authorizes states to refuse to recognize same-sex weddings performed in other states.)
As long as DOMA is on the books, the military may not treat even married gay couples the same as married heterosexual couples. Repealing DOMA and related legislation would allow gay couples that have been married to receive spousal benefits, including housing. As more states legalized same-sex marriage, more married gay couples would be eligible for military benefits.
President Obama opposes DOMA, and his Justice Department has refused to defend the constitutionality of the law in court. At a recent speech to a gay rights group, Obama reiterated that “I believe the law runs counter to the Constitution, and it’s time for it to end once and for all.” But the president hasn’t made repeal one of his priorities, perhaps because of dim prospects for it in the Republican-controlled House. That body has incorporated DOMA’s definition of marriage into its version of a defense authorization bill.
But there are stirrings in the Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says he will hold hearings on repeal legislation next month. Those proceedings should provide a forum for men and women who have been the victims of the double standard written into the law, including those who have served in the military.
Winning repeal of DOMA is a daunting task. But so, not long ago, was the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” During the campaign to end that policy, members of Congress were enlightened about the fact that gays and lesbians were already in the military and serving with distinction. In the process, stereotypes were debunked and minds were changed. A similar educational effort, this time about the lives of same-sex couples, should be part of the DOMA repeal effort. Until it succeeds, gay couples in the military will be second-class soldiers.