Gay Military Families
Stepping Out of the Shadows
by Tracey Hepner
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members are no longer obligated to hide their families or compel their same-sex partners to live the “double identity” that characterized their pre-repeal lives. For the first time, families and partners of actively serving LGB personnel can attend official military functions and social events, talk with other service families about their victories and struggles, and take advantage of many of the benefits offered to military families without fear of retribution or investigation.
The military believes that retaining a service member’s family is critical to retaining the service member. The Department of Defense (DoD) offers a comprehensive array of programs and services dedicated to maintaining the readiness of service members and their families. These programs are augmented by the selfless work of nonprofit and community-based efforts to bring a complimentary support system to military families. When a service member goes to war, the family is not forgotten. While the military takes care of its families, the precise definition of a service member’s family can be a point of contention. While the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) cannot limit whom one chooses to love, a command’s interpretation of this law can affect a family’s level of participation in military family support programs.
A recent misunderstanding of the law almost prevented Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan of the New Hampshire National Guard from attending the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) with her partner, Karen. The YRRP is a congressionally mandated, post-deployment reintegration program for Reserve Component and National Guard members and their families. Although the Morgan family was always eligible to attend, a misinterpretation of the term “family” by her chain of command led to Karen’s temporary exclusion from the function. Chief Warrant Officer Morgan did exactly the right thing when she felt that the chain of command misinterpreted her access to this program — she spoke up and she was visible. With the help of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the decision was quickly reversed and both Morgan and her partner were allowed to attend.
It is important not to over-attribute the senator’s role in the Yellow Ribbon attendance decision, however. The visibility of military families is crucial to accessing the DoD and community-based support systems. While the Defense of Marriage Act excludes LGB families from the bulk of traditional benefits available to straight, married military couples, it is important for LGB families to remember they are not excluded from all available support systems. Many programs don’t limit access based on DOMA-related restrictions.
The Morgan family story might have ended very differently had she meekly accepted her partner’s exclusion from the YRRB by her chain of command. This could have set a dangerous precedent, allowing uninformed commands to prohibit gay and lesbian families from future activities. CWO Morgan’s visibility set the correct precedent for the YRRP, which is now clearly recognized as an inclusive program.
LGB military families face the same range of deployment-related issues as straight families. Traumatic brain injuries, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), physical injuries, and a range of family issues resulting from numerous deployments are common. Children of LGB service members face the same separation issues and emotional anxiety that all military children face when a parent deploys. The YRRP, and programs like it, are critical to post deployment reintegration for all families.
What do the military lives and families of gay and lesbian service members look like? Fifteen gay military families agreed to interviews by the Military Partner and Families Coalition, offering a glimpse into the gay military family community.
-The tradition of military service runs in their families. Their parents and grandparents served.
-Of their 15 children, four continued the proud tradition of military service. One joined the Navy and three are in the Army. Two are currently pending deployment and another has just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan, where he served in a combat zone with his gay mom.
-These 15 families have endured 32 combat zone deployments (34, counting their children’s deployments.) Two of the partners are currently in Afghanistan.
-These 15 families have navigated through 36 permanent change of duty stations. They move their households, enroll their children in new schools, and find new employment to provide health insurance for themselves and their children.
-They are mothers, fathers, nurses, researchers, pre-law students, software engineers, attorneys, security officers, government civilians, psychologists, scientists, and grandmothers. They coach little league teams and go to PTA meetings.
-They are veterans of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard and Reserves.
If this sounds familiar, it should. LGB military families are the same as straight military families. LGB military partners and families sacrifice to support deployments and frequent changes of station just like straight military families do. Military families are integral to the retention and strength of our military and the resilience of our service members, regardless of sexual orientation.
Chief Warrant Officer Morgan refused to accept her family’s exclusion from the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. She chose visibility. America supports military families, and LGB families should not be afraid to challenge the status quo when necessary to protect their equal treatment. It is time for LGB military families to step out of the shadows and proudly stand beside their service members, side by side with their straight military family counterparts. They must remain visible and vigilant as the DoD works to ensure all military families receive the support they deserve, regardless of sexual orientation of the service member.