Two weeks ago, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) neatly demonstrated the power of retail politics — and at the same time brought to light a legal conflict that has made the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell a bumpy affair.
Shaheen had intervened on behalf of a constituent named Charlie Morgan — an openly gay Chief Warrant Officer in the New Hampshire National Guard — who had just returned from a deployment in Kuwait, only to be forbidden by the military from bringing her spouse Karen to an event aimed at helping families deal with the transition back to life at home.
It’s unthinkable that a straight, married service member would have faced this kind of obstacle. But though Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had been stricken from the books, and Morgan was allowed to serve openly, the Defense of Marriage Act still allowed the New Hampshire National Guard to deny her spouse authorization to attend the so-called Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program.
Shaheen took Morgan’s case straight to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the policy was quickly reversed — the Morgans were allowed to attend Yellow Ribbon event earlier this month.
But the problem isn’t limited to reintegration events or the New Hampshire National Guard. It’s happening nationwide — the ripples of an inherent tension between the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the continued existence of the Defense of Marriage Act. So advocates, politicians, and service members are handing megaphones to service members and their spouses who have suffered as a result of the conflict, to see the Defense of Marriage Act overturned by the courts or repealed by Congress.
“We’ve got a conflict here between the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act,” Shaheen told me in a telephone interview recently. “Until DOMA is repealed or stricken, they and their families will be caught in the middle.”
It’s the obverse of “Separate but Equal” — gay services members who no longer fear for their jobs but find themselves treated unequally under the law.
Shannon McLaughlin is an Army Major and JAG in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. She and her spouse Casey have 10 month old twins and decided recently that Casey should leave her teaching job — and the health benefits that came with it — to be a full-time parent.
“Babies are covered under my health insurance, but Casey is not,” McLaughlin told me in a phone interview Wednesday. “We went down to one income for the benefit of the children…but then we got whapped with an extra bill, which is over $700 a month…. My male counterpart who does the same job I does, his family’s covered, and we do the same work.”
Gay spouses are also denied housing privileges and ID cards providing access to discounted amenities and services.
Lt. Col. Victoria Hudson’s family faces a similar risk. Her wife Monika Poxon is insured, but lacks the safety net other military spouses have in the event that she leaves or loses her job.
“I have a child — my wife is the birth mother of my child,” Hudson told me. “I can add the child to the insurance if I want to, but I can’t add the mother. But if something happened to her job, and she lost her insurance, she’d have no safety net.
Joshua Snyder is married to army reservist, Capt. Steven Hill — who gained notoriety in September when he submitted a YouTube video questioning GOP presidential primary candidates about the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Snyder recalls listening while mortars landed within feet of Hill, who is currently deployed, while the two were speaking on Skype.
Hill was unscathed, but if he’d been injured or killed, Snyder wouldn’t find out through normal channels.
“There’s a lot more hoops to jump through…to make sure I’m the first contact,” he said. “There’s nothing automatic to make sure I’d be notified.”
Morgan, McLaughlin, Hudson, and Hill are among the plaintiffs in a federal district court lawsuit, filed late last week by the Servicemember’s Legal Defense Network, against Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.
It’s one of several lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of DOMA, and seeking equal spousal benefits for all members of the military. The Obama administration is no longer defending the law in court, and to many legal observers the question now is whether DOMA will die by fiat or act of Congress. But the litigants want action swiftly. “They’re not suing for backpay or for mental torment,” Snyder said. “This is literally just so that when this is all said and done that we have the security moving forward.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.