SAN DIEGO – Gay service members from Army soldiers to Air Force officers are planning to celebrate the official end of the military's 17-year policy that forced them to hide their sexual orientation with another official act — marriage.
A 27-year-old Air Force officer from Ohio said he can't wait to wed his partner of two years and slip on a ring that he won't have to take off or lie about when he goes to work each day once "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed. He plans to wed his boyfriend, a federal employee, in Washington D.C. where same-sex marriages are legal.
He asked not to be identified, following the advice of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national organization representing gay troops, including the Air Force officer, that has cautioned those on active duty from coming out until the ban is off the books.
"I owe it to him and myself," the officer said of getting married. "I don't want to do it in the dark. I think that taints what it's supposed to be about — which is us, our families, and our government."
But in the eyes of the military the marriage will not be recognized and the couple will still be denied most of the benefits the Defense Department gives to heterosexual couples to ease the costs of medical care, travel, housing and other living expenses.
The Pentagon says the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage for federal program purposes as a legal union between a man and woman — prohibits the Defense Department from extending those benefits to gay couples, even if they are married legally in certain states.
That means housing allowances and off-base living space for gay service members with partners could be decided as if they were living alone. Base transfers would not take into account their spouses. If two gay service members are married to each other they may be transferred to two different states or regions of the world. For heterosexual couples, the military tries to avoid that from happening.
Gay activists and even some commanders say the discrepancy will create a two-tier system in an institution built on uniformity.
"It's not going to work," said Army Reserve Capt. R. Clarke Cooper, who heads up the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group that sued the Justice Department to stop the enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "Taking care of our soldiers is necessary to ensure morale and unit cohesion. This creates a glaring stratification in the disbursement of support services and benefits."
Cooper said he also plans to marry his boyfriend, a former Navy officer, in a post-repeal era.
Pentagon officials have said they believe the ban could be fully lifted soon. The military for now is not discharging anyone under the policy to comply with a federal appeals court ruling July 6 that ordered the government to immediately cease its enforcement. The Department of Justice has filed an emergency motion asking the court to reconsider its order, saying ending the ban now would pre-empt the "orderly process" for rolling back the policy as outlined in the law passed and signed by the president in December.
The military's staunchly traditional, tight-knit society, meanwhile, has been quickly adapting to the social revolution: Many gay officers say they have already come out to their commanders and fellow troops, and now discuss their weekend plans without a worry.
The Air Force officer says he has dropped the code words "Red Solo Cups" — the red plastic cups used at parties — that he slipped into conversations for years to tell his partner he loved him when troops were within earshot. He now feels comfortable saying "I love you" on the phone, no longer fearful he will be interrogated by peers.
One male soldier, who also asked not to be identified, said after Congress approved repealing the law, he listed his boyfriend on his Army forms as his emergency contact and primary beneficiary of his military life insurance in case he dies in Afghanistan.
He said when he was transferred to South Korea, he and his partner had to pay for his partner's move.
"But we were able to stay together," the soldier wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press from Afghanistan. "During the move, I realized I needed to make sure my partner in life was taken care of if something, the worst, ever happened to me, especially knowing I was about to deploy."
The soldier said when he added his boyfriend's name to the paperwork as a primary beneficiary and identified him as a friend, the non-commissioned officer in charge shut his office door and told him: "Unlike the inherent benefits to being married in the Army, such as housing and sustenance allowances, our life insurance and will don't discriminate."
Same-sex partners can be listed as the person to be notified in case a service member is killed, injured, or missing, but current regulations prevent anyone other than immediate family — not same-sex spouses — from learning the details of the death. Same-sex spouses also will not be eligible for travel allowances to attend repatriation ceremonies if their military spouses are killed in action.
Gay partners and spouses also will be denied military ID cards, which means they will not be allowed on base unless they are accompanied by a service member and they cannot shop at commissaries or exchanges that have reduced prices for groceries and clothing, nor can they be treated at a military medical facility. They also will be excluded from base programs providing recreation and other such kinds of support.
Military officials say some hardship cases may be handled on an individual basis. Activists warn such an approach will create an administrative nightmare and leave the military vulnerable to accusations of making inconsistent decisions that favor some and not others.
Military families enjoy assistance from the Defense Department to compensate for the hardship of having a mother or father or both deployed to war zones and moved frequently.
"It strains a relationship when you're gone for over a year," said Navy medical corpsman Andrew James, 27, who lived two years apart from his same-sex partner, who could not afford to move with him when he was transferred from San Diego to Washington. "But straight couples have support so their spouses are able to be taken care of, with financial issues, and also they are able to talk to the chain of command, whereas gays can't. They don't have any support at all financially or emotionally, and that is really devastating."
He said he was lucky that his relationship survived and now that he is in the Reserves, they are together again in San Diego.
The benefits issue came up repeatedly during training sessions to prepare troops for the policy change.
"There are inconsistencies," Maj. Daryl Desimone told a class of Marines at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, after being asked about benefits for gay military personnel. "Anyone who looks at it logically will see there are some things that need to be worked out in the future."