Inconsistent policies overseas causing confusion, hardship for same-sex couples
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2014
VICENZA, Italy — Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan, although homosexual relationships are widely accepted there.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Germany, although a majority of Germans support it, opinion polls show.
Yet U.S. Forces Japan is providing spouses of gay and lesbian troops and Defense Department civilians with the same benefits and privileges as heterosexual couples, while the U.S. European Command does not provide such benefits for those seeking command sponsorship in Germany.
As the Defense Department works to extend full benefits to gay and lesbian families, the inconsistent policies among overseas commands are creating confusion and causing financial and emotional hardship for an unknown number of same-sex couples.
At issue are the Status of Forces agreements between the United States and host countries, military officials said. The agreements establish the rights and privileges of U.S. military personnel present in a host country, including criminal jurisdiction, tax and employment issues.
Among the most critical components for families is one that provides accompanying family members — dependents — exemptions from passport and visa regulations, allowing them to remain continuously in country.
But the SOFAs for the most part do not recognize same-sex spouses as “dependents,” military officials said.
“We are working with our Department of State counterparts to help clarify how our host-nation partners interpret the definition of ‘dependent’ as pertaining to U.S. command-sponsored same-sex spouses with respect to our relevant Status of Forces Agreements,” Lt. Col. David Westover, a EUCOM spokesman, said in a statement.
Without Italy’s or Germany’s agreement to include same-sex spouses as dependents, EUCOM said, the command cannot offer command sponsorship and its host of benefits. That compels gay and lesbian families to stay in the U.S. or to pay their own airfare, moving costs and rent — without SOFA legal and visa protections that permit them to stay in country for more than 90 days.
“Families are being separated or will be separated come this summer - families with kids,” said Ashley Broadway, of the American Military Partner Association.
“This is happening to people of all ranks but especially lower enlisted who are afraid to speak up about this issue and ask to have their orders changed,” Broadway said. Some have sought help from military lawyers or inspectors general, she said, but to no avail. “No one seems to know what to do really,” she said.
Three European countries — the U.K., Spain and Austria — have agreed to allow dependent status for same-sex U.S. military spouses, Westover said in the statement.
The different responses among the countries and U.S. military commands responsible for providing sponsorship, and the opacity with which negotiations are conducted, are causing confusion all around. Officials at overseas commands that fall under EUCOM are no exception.
For instance, an Air Force technical sergeant’s civilian spouse was recently given a SOFA card, then asked to return it.
The woman received an email from a support squadron official at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, with the following message:
“I was informed that a SOFA card had been issued to you recently due to your command sponsorship status under your spouse. This was done by mistake since same sex spouses are not authorized SOFA status in Germany yet. Unfortunately, we’ll need to invalidate your recently issued SOFA card. Can you please return it to the Passport Office?”
In October, officials at the Installation Management Command-Europe expressed uncertainty about the matter in an email that Broadway provided to Stars and Stripes. “Our earlier guidance was we could issue SOFA. Subsequently we were told to stand down,” the email said.
“At this point we remain on hold for any new actions,” the email continued. “We are monitoring this situation daily. We are getting various opinions from local [staff judge advocates].”
It’s not clear why the U.S. and Germany have not reached an agreement.
Germany has for years offered domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples, the same situation that exists in Austria. Italy has no national provisions recognizing same-sex marriage.
EUCOM declined to discuss the situation beyond issuing Westover’s statement, and officials at subordinate European commands would not comment.
But discussions regarding SOFAs are typically diplomatically and militarily sensitive — the 1950s agreement between the U.S. and Italy remains classified — and, as is the case with same-sex marriage, politically charged.
U.S. commands in Asia have successfully resolved the issue, not always waiting for the relevant country to agree. In December, Japan, where same-sex marriage is not legal but homosexual relationships are not a political issue, agreed that the word “spouse” applied to anyone legally married to Defense Department personnel, officials at U.S. Forces Japan officials said.
In Korea, the American command pushed ahead, apparently without an agreement, informing the Korean government in a letter in November that same-sex dependents of troops, civilian employees and contractors would get full benefits.
“It is our hope that the ROK government will understand and respect the U.S. government’s decision,” a USFK statement said.
U.S. Forces Korea added a caveat: Although it would assist in A-3 visa applications for all dependents, whether the Korean government would issue the visas to same-sex spouses was “a decision of the Korean government,” the command said.
The issue is a remaining difficulty for military gays and lesbians, who have made remarkable gains after centuries of sexual-orientation-based discrimination.
Until three years ago, when the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was revoked, homosexual troops faced investigation and discharge from the military if their orientation became suspected.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. The decision paved the way for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to announce that the DOD would make the same benefits available to all military spouses, regardless of sexual orientation, as soon as possible.
The policy faced opposition in the U.S., where Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia defied the Pentagon, refusing for months to process ID cards for same-sex spouses of National Guard troops. All states had complied by December.
A number of countries have offered no opposition to treating U.S. military same-sex couples the same as heterosexual married couples.
Canada, Nepal, Australia, Laos and New Zealand have agreed to define same-sex spouses as dependents, said a Defense Department spokesman who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issues.
Two countries — Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — have told U.S. officials that they will not allow command sponsorship of same-sex spouses, according to a DOD official’s email Broadway provided. In numerous countries in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, where homosexuality is harshly criminalized, no such agreements are likely.
At least 10 nations in Europe, including France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and most of Scandinavia recognize same-sex marriage. The United Kingdom will do so later this year.
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this report.