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Veterans Affairs allows Oregon same-sex couple access to burial rights in national cemetery

DOMA Repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

In a significant first that may presage future opportunities for LGBT service members, an Oregon Air Force veteran has received a waiver from the Department of Veterans Affairs allowing her wife’s remains to be interred in Willamette National Cemetary, the Oregonian reported yesterday.

The Oregonian‘s coverage features a moving profile of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Linda Campbell and her time in the closet during her service in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Campbell’s decision to come out to her parents in 1972 didn’t go well (her father, also a veteran, told her he no longer had a daughter), and following her active duty service, Campbell went on to a long career in the Oregon Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves until her retirement in 1994.  She later worked for the Housing Authority of Portland and then the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department as a subdirector in the agency’s Portland branch.

When Campbell met Nancy Jean Lynchild, a former electrician who worked at the Housing Authority of Eugene, both women were already in committed relationships.  When those relationships ran their course, though, Campbell and Lynchild formed an enduring bond, registering as domestic partners when Eugene first allowed couples to do so (the registration was largely a formality and provided no legal rights), and later in 2004 when Multnomah County briefly announced it would allow same-sex couples to marry.  After a time living in Washington, D.C., where Campbell had taken a job at HUD headquarters, the couple moved back to Portland to be closer to Campbell’s parents.  They wed in Vancouver in November 2010.

In 2000, Lynchild was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought for 12 years until her death in Eugene last December.  Campbell was deeply saddened by Lynchild’s illness, and by an injustice that she knew she would face as a married gay woman: because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Lynchild would not be allowed to be buried in a national cemetery like Campbell would, even though Campbell’s mother, like many opposite-sex spouses of veterans, had been buried with her father in Willamette National Cemetary.

During the course of Lynchild’s battle against breast cancer, Campbell received a phone call from Brad Avakian, the commissioner of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries whose office enforced the state’s workplace laws and handled civil rights discrimination claims.  After Campbell told Avakian about Lynchild and her frustration surrounding the burial rights situation, the commissioner looked into the federal code regarding veterans’ benefits and found an exception to the restrictions of DOMA.  According to the rules, Avakian determined, interment in a national cemetary was allowed for “such other persons or classes of persons as may be designated by the Secretary.”

Avakian helped Campbell request a waiver from Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, last May.  Avakian sent his own letter of support, arguing his belief that Campbell’s request involved “what is required under the civil rights of our state,” and also contacted his friend, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkely, who wrote another letter of support.  After Lynchild’s death, Campbell renewed the request and Merkely spoke with Shinseki personally.  Avakian prepared a civil rights complaint against Shinseki and Willamette National Cemetary that argued the VA’s refusal to bury same-sex spouses constituted an equal rights violation.  “I never wanted to have to pull the trigger,” Avakian told the Oregonian. “But I was ready to use every possible tool I had to make it happen.”

He didn’t have to.  Shinseki granted the waiver on January 29, and a VA mortuary official called Campbell to schedule a burial.  “It was just surreal,” she told the Oregonian.  “I cried, I shook, I got on my knees, I thanked her.”

Campbell’s story illustrates the injustices faced by military spouses in a post-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell world in which they are finally able to speak openly about their relationships but barred from the full legal recognition the military offers to opposite-sex married couples.   It also underscores an argument made by the state of Massachusetts in the DOMA case (Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services) filed in 2009 by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.  During the consideration of that case by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, Maura Healey, the state’s assistant AG, highlighted the effects of DOMA in terms of veterans’ burial rights.  DOMA, Massachusetts argued, essentially forces a state to choose between implementing its own civil rights policies and forfeiting federal funding for violating DOMA.  This argument parallels the civil rights complaint that Oregon’s Brad Avakian prepared against the VA.

Shinseki’s approval of Campbell’s waiver would seem to open the door for other gay and lesbian veterans to seek similar rights for their non-military spouses.  Nevertheless, a substantial effort–including seeking the support of a U.S. senator and high ranking state official–was required of Campbell to secure a basic right and expression of dignity offered automatically to opposite-sex military couples.  Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s directive this week extending many military benefits to same-sex partners was welcomed as a significant step forward for the rights of LGBT service members.  Until the repeal of DOMA, however, they will remain second-class members of the military, barred from accessing such benefits as health care, on-base housing and–with one exception–having their spouses buried in our national cemeteries.

In addition to its profile of Linda Campbell, the Oregonian has a great slideshow of photos from her relationship with Nancy Lynchild as well as a video of Campbell’s story produced by Basic Rights Oregon and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

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