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Despite repeal, same-sex military couples will see few benefits

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 22, 2011

WASHINGTON — New York officials expect to officiate hundreds of gay wedding ceremonies this weekend alone, when the state’s law allowing same-sex marriages goes into effect. Tying the knot will instantly open up a host of civil benefits and legal protections for the couples – unless they’re members of the U.S. military.

Blame the Defense of Marriage Act. Pentagon officials say the federal law prohibits military officials from granting medical coverage, housing allowances and a host of other married-couple benefits to same-sex partners.

Even though other civilian government employees who marry same-sex partners can access a host of federal benefits, gay military spouses will see little recognition and no new benefits from the military after the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is repealed.

Gay rights groups say that will lead to a host of headaches for military commanders, as they’re forced to handle gay and straight couples differently even as the Pentagon demands that sexual orientation play no role in how servicemembers are treated.

“I think the Defense Department is going to end up being a force in finally overturning DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act),” said R. Clarke Cooper, an Army Reserve captain and executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans.

“For most straight Americans, they’ve never even heard of DOMA. But when commanders have to start making exceptions for some married couples, handle more hardship claims, that’s where the department is going to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

The act was passed by Congress in 1996 in response to state laws allowing same-sex marriages and civil unions. It defines marriage for federal program purposes as a contract between a man and woman, and prohibits federal agencies from granting same-sex couples benefits reserved for heterosexual couples.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama sought to soften those rules by ordering a government-wide review to see which benefits could be offered without running afoul of those legal restrictions. That opened up credit union memberships, access to counseling and some health care services, and invitations to public events held by various departments.

Last year, the White House extended those offerings to include access to federal day care, relocation assistance and more health care. The changes covered civilian employees of the Defense Department but not troops and their partners, because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law barring enlistment of openly gay servicemembers.

In a January memo outlining the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal plan, Pentagon officials said troops with same-sex partners will be able to designate them as the beneficiary for life insurance and investment plans, and those partners will be able to access some base family services.

But those are also open to unmarried same-sex partners, and the memo stated that for married gay couples “there will be no changes to benefits eligibility on the date of repeal.” Department officials said they will revisit the issue in coming years, after repeal is finalized.

In the pre-repeal training carried out by the services, same-sex marriages were a frequent topic of conversation. Troops wanted to know whether the partners would have access to social events (they will), Tricare coverage (they won’t), overseas accompanied tours (they won’t) and base housing (they might, but not like straight married couples enjoy).

Commanders will still have the ability to make exceptions for “hardship” cases, as they do now for heterosexual troops with a fiancée. Cooper said he expects those requests to flood military offices once the repeal is finalized, as gay troops look for ways to close the gap between their perks and the benefits enjoyed by other married couples.

“They’ll want to make exceptions to help those troops out, and keep up their morale,” he said. “But the military doesn’t like exceptions. So I could see them suggesting changes to Congress which work against DOMA, as the issues grow.”

Conservative lawmakers have inserted language reinforcing the Defense of Marriage Act in early versions of next year’s defense budget bills, saying it’s needed to clarify the government’s continued stance on the issue. Meanwhile, a Senate measure to repeal the law has drawn praise from the White House but is not expected to pass Congress.

That leaves same-sex married troops with fewer benefits than their heterosexual military counterparts and their homosexual civilian government co-workers. Gay rights groups say that will be the next focus of their advocacy work, once the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal is finalized.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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