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In South Korea, SOFA concerns leave same-sex military spouse benefits in limbo

SEOUL, South Korea — Romel Ballesteros can drive on post, drop his sons off at school, sign in guests and use the bank. But he can’t put gas in the family car or shop for groceries.

The stay-at-home father of two won’t even be allowed to watch his sons visit Santa Claus at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan’s post exchange during the Christmas season.

The reason?

Ballesteros is married to a man, so the U.S. military refuses to grant him the ration privileges that would let him enter and shop at commissaries and exchanges, citing a possible conflict with the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea.

U.S. Forces Korea says the South Korean government, which does not recognize gay marriage, must approve the extension of certain marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

However, USFK says it has yet to discuss the matter with Seoul, which has not — at least publicly — raised objections to extending full marriage benefits to the same-sex spouses of U.S. servicemembers and civilian workers.

Ballesteros’ husband, Seoul American Middle School drama teacher David Burkett, worries that if he were injured or sick, Ballesteros couldn’t shop on base for their sons, ages 3 and 5, or visit him in the hospital. He said the military has yet to provide a “legitimate reason why you can’t do this, instead of dancing around some SOFA that nobody has a clue about.”

“Other than blatant discrimination disguised as ‘interpreting the SOFA,’ please explain to me why we are being denied the basic benefit of ration privileges/shopping on USAG-Y that every other family on post, with proper documentation, is entitled to?” he wrote in a Sept. 3 email to Yongsan commander Col. Michael Masley.

The 47-year-old Status of Forces Agreement establishes legal protections for the military community. Such agreements differ from country to country where U.S. troops are stationed, addressing everything from taxation to driving privileges. The agreements help make sure military personnel retain the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution even though they are stationed abroad.

The U.S.-South Korean SOFA, which was amended in 1991 and 2001, defines a married dependent as a “spouse” but does not specify that the spouse must be of a different sex than his or her sponsor.

However, the SOFA also says those who fall under the umbrella of the agreement must respect South Korean law. While same-sex marriage is not explicitly illegal in South Korea, homosexuality remains largely taboo and was rarely acknowledged in this socially conservative country until little more than a decade ago.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to strike down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing gay unions, the Department of Defense announced it would extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples under its purview. However, the decision raised questions about how to implement the new directive in countries where U.S. troops serve but gay marriages are banned.

Until it receives approval from South Korea, USFK is extending all marriage benefits to same-sex spouses except for what may be the two most critical: ration privileges and A-3, or SOFA, visas.

“The Offices of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense are reviewing this issue and how to fully implement this change in U.S. law and policy in all overseas locations with a SOFA,” USFK said in an Oct. 18 email. “USFK must receive this guidance before addressing this issue with the ROK government. USFK and the Department of Defense remain committed to ensuring all service men and women, civilians, and their families are treated fairly and equally as the law directs. Expeditious implementation of the decisions announced by DOD is our intent.”

South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government does not have a position on whether same-sex spouses should receive ration privileges and SOFA visas and has not been reviewing it because the U.S. has not asked.

However, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense said he sees no problem with USFK extending full benefits to same-sex spouses, even though homosexual acts are punishable within the South Korean military.

“The U.S. military is independent from us,” he said. “South Korea has nothing to do with same-sex spouses being stationed here or receiving SOFA benefits since they are connected to the U.S. military.”

It is unknown how many USFK servicemembers and DOD civilians are affected. Of the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, more than 15,000 are married, though USFK said its records do not indicate whether they are married to someone of the same gender.

Steve Blake, an auditor at Osan Air Base, said his husband of five years was issued a SOFA, or A-3, visa on Sept. 5 at a South Korean immigration office. “They didn’t give him any problems at all,” said Blake, whose husband, Tim Hart, has lived in South Korea for the past three years on a tourist visa, forcing him to leave the country every 90 days when the visa expired.

When Hart applied for a ration card from the military on the same day, the couple was told USFK was still studying the matter and “it could take some time” to address the issue with the Korean government.

“I can’t imagine that there are that many people that are affected,” said Blake, whose husband was granted a one-year exception to policy that allowed him to enter but not shop at commissaries and exchanges. “The ROK government is willing to give the A-3 visa, so what could be the possible holdup?”

According to interviews with same-sex spouses, USFK’s handling of the issue has been haphazard, with military officials not fully explaining why the SOFA may prevent ration cards from being issued or when the matter might be resolved.

An elementary teacher at a DODDS-Korea school said his husband was issued a ration card Sept. 9, only to have it revoked 3½ weeks later. A base official showed up at his school Oct. 4 and said the card had been issued due to an unspecified “administrative error” and must be returned. The teacher spoke on condition of anonymity because his students and their parents don’t know his sexual orientation.

Chad Jimison, an algebra teacher at Seoul American Middle School, and his Korean husband of four years applied for an identification card and ration card Sept. 3, the first day they were eligible to do so after the repeal of DOMA.

His husband was issued an identification card that grants him access to U.S. military installations, but a clerk said he couldn’t get a ration card because “some general hasn’t signed off on it yet.”

“I said, ‘What’s there to sign off on? The law’s been changed,’ ” Jimison said. “She said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Jimison continues to do the couple’s grocery shopping alone because his husband isn’t allowed inside the commissary. He sometimes texts photos of food to his husband, who waits in their car, and asks, “Is this what we want?”

“It just feels very demoralizing for my husband to have to sit outside like a dog while I run inside the commissary or PX to do my shopping,” he said.

Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com
 

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