NEW YORK – After 19 years hiding her relationship with an active-duty Army captain, Cathy Cooper is getting ready to exhale. On Tuesday, the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" will expire. And Cooper will dare speak her love's name in public.
"This is life-changing," said Cooper, choking up. "I just want to be able to breathe — knowing I can call my partner at work and have a conversation without it having to be in code."
Much has been reported about the burdens that "don't ask" placed on gay and lesbian service members who risked discharge under the 1993 policy if their sexual orientation became known in the ranks. There's been less attention focused on their civilian partners, who faced distinctive, often relentless stresses of their own.
In interviews with The Associated Press, five partners recalled past challenges trying to conceal their love affairs, spoke of the joy and relief accompanying repeal, and wondered about the extent that they would be welcomed into the broader military family in the future.
Even with repeal imminent, the partners — long accustomed to secrecy — did not want to reveal the full identity of their active-duty loved ones before Tuesday.
Cooper, who works for a large private company, moved from the Midwest to northern Virginia to be near her partner's current Army post, yet couldn't fully explain to friends and colleagues why she moved. "It's been really difficult — it's really isolated us," she said. "I became much more introverted, more evasive."
Cooper said her partner's Army career is thriving, though she's had to hide a major component of her personal life.
"I don't know any of her co-workers," Cooper said. "She says, 'You're the best part of me and I have to pretend you don't exist.'"
Looking ahead, Cooper is unsure how same-sex partners will be welcomed by the military establishment.
"Will it be, 'Hey, come join all the family support programs'?" she wondered. "I'm not going to be so naive as to think that ... I'm just hoping the door is open."
During the long, arduous campaign to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," activists and advocacy groups tended to downplay issues related to post-repeal benefits for civilian partners. "It's not something we've been pushing very hard for yet, but it's obviously going to be the next front in the ongoing battle for equality," said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United.
Nicholson's organization, which advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian military personnel, conducted a survey of same-sex partners last year to gauge their concerns. One widespread hope, he said, was the military might issue ID cards to same-sex civilian partners so they could gain access to bases, commissaries and support services on their own.
In general, same-sex partners will not get the same benefits that the Pentagon grants to heterosexual married 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 as a legal union between a man and woman — precludes extending those benefits to gay couples, even if they are married legally in certain states.
Same-sex partners can be listed as the person to be notified in case a service member is killed or injured, but current regulations prevent anyone other than immediate family — not same-sex spouses — from learning the details of the death.
Some activists predict that gay couples will remain second-class citizens in the military's eyes as long as the Defense of Marriage Act is in force. It is currently under challenge in several court cases, and the Obama administration has said it will not defend DOMA in court.
In the meantime, some activists suggest the military could allow all its personnel — gay or straight — to be eligible for subsidized off-base housing, emergency leaves and other benefits by virtue of a relationship with an unmarried partner.
Heather Lamb, an IBM software engineer in northern Virginia, looks ahead to the post-repeal era and hopes that eventually, same-sex couples receive the same support as other military families.
How will the military handle the changes? "I think it will be like any neighborhood or city in America," she said. "There will be people in the military who are very open and accepting, and there will be people who will not be."
The advent of repeal emboldened Lamb to propose earlier this month to her partner of six years, an Air Force officer named Adrianna.
No wedding date is set, but Lamb, 35, is excited in part because marriage — impossible under "don't ask, don't tell" — offers a more secure future for their son, Jacob, who she gave birth to in April.
Adrianna took leave from her post near Washington, D.C., to be present for Jacob's birth, Lamb said, but "don't ask, don't tell" nonetheless took its toll.
"Most people at work share the news of a birth," Lamb said. "When Adrianna went back, she couldn't get congratulations. It was one of the sad things — she had to keep quiet about it."
For Ariana Bostian-Kentes, repeal comes at an already emotional time. Her partner of nearly five years, an Army medical supply officer named Nicole, has just started a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan with the 1st Armored Division from Fort Bliss, Texas.
Before repeal became certain, Nicole was leaning toward leaving the military after the deployment, Bostian-Kentes said. Now, there's more of a chance she'll stay in the service, and the two are discussing the possibility of marrying after Nicole returns to the U.S.
"She might go back in, since she won't have to hide her private life," Bostian-Kentes said. "Before, it was let's get out as soon as we can, and not have to lie to our family and friends."
The two women, both 28, met in 2006 while on a rugby team at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Bostian-Kentes now works at the university's center serving gay, lesbian and transgender students. At that stage, Nicole was in the ROTC program, and Bostian-Kentes had to learn the intricacies of dating someone governed by "don't ask, don't tell."
"I'd never had to be in the closet, but I happened to fall in love with someone in the military and had to create a closet that didn't exist before," she said. "We couldn't hold hands walking down the street, couldn't write this or that on my Facebook site — it was a huge learning curve for me."
There was a brief scare last October, when a fellow reveler at a Halloween party posted a photo on Facebook of Ariana and Nicole embracing.
"I freaked out and called the guy who posted it and said, 'Take it down. This could ruin her career,'" Bostian-Kentes recalled. "The guy did take it down — but it was a terrifying two hours of my life."
Bostian-Kentes, who co-founded an advocacy group called the Military Partners and Families Coalition, is hopeful that repeal will enable her to be an active part of the military community and its various support systems.
"It's so much more difficult to shoulder the burden of deployment without support," she said. "It's exhausting, it's scary — the continuous web of lies that's being weaved. I can't wait to come out of that, to come out as a military spouse."
The repeal process has been watched closely by Catherine Crisp, a professor of social work at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who endured "don't ask, don't tell" for 15 years as partner of a career Army officer, Kaye McKinzie.
McKinzie, 47, a West Point graduate, retired two years ago after being promoted to colonel, and now teaches in the University of Central Arkansas College of Business.
"I felt like I spent 15 years holding my breath," Crisp said. "I did not realize until Kaye retired what a toll it had taken on both of us, that we lived in constant fear that became a part of who we were."
Crisp, 46, said both she and McKinzie were dedicated to their careers, lived apart for long stretches, and often took exhausting steps to conceal their relationship.
"In hindsight it seems ludicrous that we had to spend time and energy on stuff like that," Crisp said. "We lived in fear not of 'the enemy' but of our government and the fear of disclosure and discovery under this horrible policy."
There were delicate moments along the way, said Crisp, who noted that much of her academic research has focused on topics related to gays and lesbians. She taught about "don't ask, don't tell" in some of her classes, and challenged her students to think about the plight of civilian same-sex partners.
But her own experience went unmentioned.
Stephen Peters, 31, knows the strains of "don't ask, don't tell" from two perspectives. He's a former Marine discharged under the policy in 2007 after telling his commander he was fed up with having to lie constantly about himself.
As Peters was leaving the military, he met an active-duty Marine who's been his partner ever since. Peters recently followed him from Hawaii to a posting in the San Diego area.
"I had to go to work and lie to people, and say I was single," Peters said. "I made up excuses about why I had to move — made it seem I was crazy."
Throughout their relationship, Peters said, there were recurring fears of being seen together by his partner's Marine colleagues.
"We'd see people he worked with and he'd make up some story about who I was, constantly creating a profile that wasn't real," Peters said.
Peters said his partner, who is 38, hopes to stay in the Marines. Peters is unsure how easy it would be for them to live together if the partner is deployed overseas, given that he would not be officially recognized as family.
On a less weighty matter, Peters wonders how he'll respond if the opportunity arises to attend a Marine Corps ball with his partner.
"Personally, I don't feel a desire to go," he said. "But maybe it's important for my partner, given everything he's sacrificed, for his family to be part of that community."
Servicemembers United: http://www.servicemembers.org/
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network: http://www.sldn.org/
The Campaign for Military Partners: http://militarypartners.org/
David Crary can be reached at http://twitter.com/CraryAP