Equal Benefits For Same Sex Couples
By Laura Conley and
Lawrence J. Korb. This article was published by the Center for American Progress.
On September 20, 2011, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that bars
openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military, will
finally end. With the path to repealing this misguided policy now firmly
in place, it’s time to shift focus to making sure that gay and lesbian
troops have equal access to the services needed to support themselves
and their families. Constructive efforts in this area on the part of the
Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership will demonstrate to gay and
lesbian troops that they see the repeal as a positive step.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, bars the federal
government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples. Because
many military benefits are reserved only for married troops, the
Pentagon should take all reasonable steps to provide for the families of
gay and lesbian service members. This step would be in keeping with
President Barack Obama’s 2009 directive
asking federal agencies to determine which benefits they can legally
extend to same-sex partners. Relaunching that process as soon as
possible—this time for the military—would be eminently sensible.
In the run-up to congressional action on DADT last year, the Pentagon completed an exhaustive study
of how to repeal the policy. Among other topics, the working group
reviewed the issue of benefits for same-sex couples and their families.
It found that some benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and life
insurance beneficiary status, were already eligible to be directed to a
person of the service member’s choosing. Other benefits, however, most
significantly military health care, could not legally be extended to the
partners and spouses of gay and lesbian troops under existing federal
laws even after repeal takes effect.
Still other benefits, such as the ability to receive free legal
assistance through DOD, fell into a murkier category. The working group
advised DOD to make appropriate adjustments to extend these benefits to
same-sex couples “where it is legally permissible to do so under current
statutory definitions, and where justified by policy, fiscal, and
feasibility considerations.” It specifically recommended, however, that
DOD not include on-base family housing in these initial modifications
and advised the Pentagon not to immediately rework regulatory
definitions for dependents and family members to include same-sex
couples. The working group feared that doing so could make repeal
significantly more contentious in the short term.
Since Congress and the president approved the repeal of DADT last
December, legal wrangling has caused DADT to be suspended and reinstated
several times over the last year. Our service men and women have
handled these changes with exceptional professionalism. They have proven
that the military is ready for the change that the end of DADT will
bring and it is now time for the Pentagon’s leadership to step up.
Under these conditions, DOD should immediately extend all legally
feasible benefits to same-sex couples, including those benefits that the
DADT working group was reluctant to embrace. Further delaying the
extension of these benefits to the same-sex partners and spouses of
troops is unnecessary and unacceptable. It will deprive these families
of the resources needed to fully support a military service member—an
act which would be particularly reprehensible for troops currently
deployed abroad—and deprive the service members of a significant portion of the compensation package afforded to married heterosexual troops.
The U.S. State Department is already leading the way
in providing benefits for same-sex couples, including issuing them
diplomatic passports and counting same-sex spouses and partners in
calculations for housing and cost-of-living allowances at overseas
posts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in announcing these and a
number of other changes in 2009, remarked that “family members [of
foreign service officers] often uproot their lives, endure hardship
conditions, and put their own careers on hold to support our overseas
missions.” The same is certainly true for our military spouses and
children around the world. There’s no excuse now for not providing the
fullest possible range of benefits for these long-ignored Americans.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow and Laura Conley is a former
Special Assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.