WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, Tracey Hepner and her spouse couldn’t be seen together in public for fear of government reprisal. On Tuesday night, they were special guests of the White House during the State of the Union speech at the Capitol.
“To be so excluded, so invisible for so long, and now to have been sitting there, it’s almost surreal,” said Hepner, co-founded the Military Partners and Families Coalition, which advocates for same-sex military couples.
Hepner watched the speech from the first lady’s box in the House gallery as her wife -- Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first general officer to come out as gay while still serving -- listened from the White House.
In the address, the president pledged to “ensure equal treatment for all servicemembers and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight.”
Just a day earlier, Pentagon officials announced they would begin to extend some spousal benefits to same sex partners, including joint duty assignments and military ID cards for non-military partners.
It’s all a stark change from just a few years ago, when Hepner and Smith were unable to publicly acknowledge their relationship because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
“Less than two years ago … I wasn’t able to even exist,” Hepner said after the speech. “Now the Defense Department has done everything it can to help our families. Now what’s blocking it is [the Defense of Marriage Act]. But the extension of those benefits has shined a light on the issue, and how much it hurts all families in the military.”
Gay rights advocates are hopeful the recent progress will lead to a repeal of DOMA. Hepner said she met briefly with the president after the speech and he promised to “get this done.”
While she was honored to be invited to the event, Hepner said it was bittersweet. She spent much of the evening thinking of fellow rights advocates Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who passed away from cancer this week, and Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, killed in October by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
“I’m was just there as a representative for all of those families,” she said. “I was there so we all could be seen.”