The words, “We the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still,” rang across the National Mall during President Obama’s second inauguration as president of the United States. Setting the stage for equality, Obama began his second term dedicated to creating legal equality for all US citizens no matter their sexual orientation.
He continued to say, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
President Obama’s inaugural address highlighted the importance of equality, putting gay rights on the same level as equal pay for women, immigration reform, and gun control. Still, with only nine US states allowing same-sex marriage, and the Department of Defense abiding by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), LGBT military personnel and their families continue to not be seen as equals by the law.
Yet, 2013 may be the year of change for marriage equality. With both the Boston and New York appeals courts deeming the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, it is likely that the Act will be revisited by the US Supreme Court this year. In addition to revisiting DOMA, Obama has nominated former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a proponent of marriage equality, for Secretary of Defense.
Even with equality at the forefront of the new year, there are several people that agree with the Defense of Marriage Act and don’t want to see it go.
According to Right Wing Watch, Mat Staver, head of Liberty Counsel, a non-profit public interest law firm that provides free legal assistance in defense of Christian religious liberty, said that if DOMA is deemed unconstitutional, the US will be headed towards a second civil war.
“This is the thing that revolutions literally are made of. This would be more devastating to our freedom, to our religious freedom, to the rights of pastors and their duty to be able to speak and to Christians around the country, then anything that the revolutionaries during the American Revolution even dreamed of facing,” Staver said. “This would be the thing that revolutions are made of. This could split the country right in two. This could cause another civil war.”
Sentiments like this one have resulted in House Republicans spending over 1.7 million dollars to defend DOMA, a number that could increase to 3 million after the House Administration Committee and Bancroft LLC, the attorneys defending the Act, signed a revised contract raising the spending cap.
Even with the push from the right to protect DOMA, if Hagel’s nomination is accepted and President Obama and the Supreme Court are successful in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, LGBTmilitary personnel and their families may soon be eligible to receive the same benefits as non-LGBTmilitary families.
In a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Hagel wrote, “I fully support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country. I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make, and if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
In a press release from OutServe – SLDN, a non-partisan, non-profit, legal services and policy organization dedicated to bringing full equality to the United States’ military, Allyson Robinson, Executive Director, said, “Senator Hagel’s commitment is a turning point for our gay and lesbian military families. His promise to grant these service members the family benefits they have earned demonstrates his deepening grasp of the injustice currently being done to them.”
Since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2010, LGBT military families have struggled to obtain equal status. Although military members are free to be openly gay and serve, same-sex marriages are not recognized within the military. Even if military personnel are from states that allow same-sex marriage, the federal government does not recognize their marriages.
The Department of Defense acts under federal law, meaning it must abide by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 ruling states, “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
According to the American Military Partners Association (AMPA), the Defense of Marriage Act is especially challenging for LGBT military families, who serve the country but aren’t legally regarded by the constitution they fight for.
“DOMA limits resources for LGBT military families by denying LGBT service members’ same-sex spouses access to various benefits and programs granted to heterosexual military spouses,” AMPAexplains. They go on to list the programs same-sex military spouses are not eligible for, some of which include health benefits, family support and counseling programs, and surviving spouse benefits.
Same-sex military spouses also do not have access to compensation allowances for housing, relocation and transportation, or family separation, and they are not identified as primary next of kin, a title that makes a spouse the first person to be notified if a soldier goes missing in action, is wounded, taken as a prisoner of war, or is killed in action.
If DOMA is deemed unconstitutional when it is brought before the US Supreme Court, same-sex marriage would be recognized by the federal government and the military, thus granting the same rights and benefits heterosexual military families receive to same-sex military families.
Military equality in other countries
As gay rights enters the spotlight in national politics, it’s hard not to wonder how the US compares with regards to equal rights policies in other countries across the world.
According to a 2009 study by the Palm Center, a research institute committed to sponsoring studies that enhance public dialogue, 25 countries allow gay people to openly serve in the military. This number has since grown to include the US in 2010, but there is still a long way to go before equality is reached all over.
Of the 25 countries, Britain, Israel, Canada, South Africa, and Australia all permitted openly gay members of society to serve in their military before the United States. Great Britain lifted its ban in 1999, and in the early 1990s, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzkah Rubin said, “I don’t see any reason to discriminate against homosexuals.”
Aside from the right to serve openly in the military, ten countries across the world recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex military members and their families are recognized in Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Spain, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
In 2002, the South African National Defense Force extended medical and pension benefits to military partners, regardless of gender. The Canadian Armed Forces recognizes same-sex marriage as legally equivalent to opposite-sex marriage. All spouses in the UK are entitled to spousal benefits, and civil partners have access to military housing, security clearance and allowances.
Military equality: a small portion of widespread LGBT equality
Even if DOMA is deemed unconstitutional when it reaches the US Supreme Court, there is still a lot to be done in terms of equal rights for LGBT citizens in the United States.
According to Karma Chávez, University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor and expert onLGBT equality and politics, “We’ve seen a lot of positive imagery of gay service members being able to be open. As I understand it, however, instances of sexism and homophobia have not decreased just because people can now openly serve. Just like allowing women into the military hasn’t made it an anti-sexist institution, open service doesn’t make the military anti-homophobic.”
Chávez goes on to note that marriage and military is just a small portion of LGBT rights.
“I think the gay community has much more pressing concerns such as police harassment, employment discrimination, homelessness, racism, and health care that are not addressed by DADTor DOMA.”
Still, any step towards broad equality would be a win for LGBT communities. Starting with those who risk their lives to protect their country and constitution may help open the door for nation-wide benefits and rights for citizens of any sexual orientation.