Filed under: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
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.
By Scottie Thomaston
The Washington Post is reporting that the Pentagon is set to extend certain benefits to gays and lesbians in the military and their spouses. Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a “marriage” is defined as only between a man and a woman and a “spouse” means only someone of the opposite sex. The law prevents the military from offering certain benefits to same-sex couples. The Department of Defense’s policies related to benefits have been under review since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
LGBT activists and legal experts have argued that certain benefits could be extended even while DOMA is still the law of the land. Recently during Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing to become the new Secretary of Defense. The new benefits will begin to be extended before outgoing Secretary Panetta leaves.
According to the report:
Officials at the Pentagon would not say which new benefits the department has determined it can extend to same-sex couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bars the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex unions. Gay rights advocates have called for benefits including housing privileges, access to base recreational facilities and joint duty assignments for couples in the military.
Legal experts say, however, that the Pentagon will be unable to extend more than 100 benefits while the Defense of Marriage Act remains in place.
The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta’s final imprint on the armed forces. They will also come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken under his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.
Military officials have struggled with the flurry of equality dilemmas that have emerged since the ban on openly gay service troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of the law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Outserve-SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) issued a statement:
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected this week to announce the long-delayed extension of support and benefits for gay and lesbian military families, according to reports. Army Veteran and OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson said today that the organization hopes Panetta will take full advantage of this final opportunity to act before leaving office.
“Secretary Panetta established a strong civil rights record long before taking office at the Pentagon, so his unwillingness to extend support and recognition to gay and lesbian service members and their families where it is clearly within his authority to do so has baffled many of us. We are hopeful that he will not take half-measures here; for him to grant anything less than the full extent of benefits available under current law would be an anticlimactic end to an otherwise exemplary record on civil rights,” said Robinson.
OutServe-SLDN, previously known as Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has worked with Panetta and his deputies over the two years since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to get them to offer married same-sex couples those benefits that may be conferred even while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law. Meanwhile, Panetta’s expected successor, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, has committed to move quickly to extend these benefits if confirmed.
Until DOMA is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court, the Department of Defense can only extend a portion of the benefits allowed for opposite-sex spouses. The Respect for Marriage Act to repeal DOMA is expected to be reintroduced in Congress. And on March 27, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, challenging Section 3 of DOMA. A decision in the case is expected by late June.
By Matt Baume
We’re just one week in and already 2012 is looking like a strong year for marriage, with encouraging action in Washington, Maryland, and Colorado. The governor of Michigan revokes health care coverage for domestic partners, leaving families with no access to medical care. And a bi-national couple in San Francisco gets a two-year reprieve, but their eventual fate may depend on whoever occupies the White House two years from now.
Remember the Republican debate, when a soldier named Stephen Hill asked Rick Santorum about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Well, this week I spoke to Stephen Hill and his husband, Josh Snyder, about their experience coming out in front of the world, what they thought of Rick’s response, how their relationship’s been affected by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and we also got a little gun show. Here’s a few highlights from our conversation, stay tuned for the full interview, coming out later this week.
Stephen: “Immediately I thought, am I in trouble, did I do something wrong? ‘Cause I just got booed on national TV and I’m an active duty serviceman. I’m a soldier. So, that was the next thought. And then of course Rick Santorum’s answer was the next string of emotions. And then after all that was done, I thought oh my God, I just came out to six million people.”
Josh: “I can tell you after dealing with it for a year, and being an Army spouse, it’s not easy. We’ve been on Skype before and a mortar’s gone off, and he’s had to disconnect and, y’know, we lost contact for a few hours. And it’s really kind of weird to think — you’ve got your phone in one hand and I’ve got Skype sitting up on the computer. And I’m just hoping Skype rings first versus the phone. Because God only knows. I mean I’m the first to be contacted ’cause we arranged it from a standpoint of the documentation that you submit with the Army. But technically as a spouse I wouldn’t really be recognized. It was all set up by us.”
Stephen: “I’ve had to run through my house and hide pictures in my own house. Y’know, when soldiers and friends would come over. I’ve had to ask people to leave my house. Y’know, I’ve had to make my roommates lie, I’ve had to do a lot of stuff. And the resentment of that kind of stuff — and the resentment of knowing that for twenty years I’ve fought for my country, and I’ve fought for everybody’s rights except my own. I mean that’s basically what it is. And I have to lie to do that. Y’know, and it just isn’t right.”
Let’s look at some headlines from around the states. This week, the Governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire, will introduce a bill to legalize marriage. LGBTs have a good ally in Gregoire: it was her 2009 bill that legalized civil unions in the state. Getting from there to marriage is going to be an uphill climb, since the bill will have to pass through a legislature that’s proven skeptical towards marriage in the past. But with a recent survey showing Washington residents supporting equality 54 to 35 percent, momentum is clearly on our side. Washington’s legislative session starts this week and runs until March 8th.
Maryland’s legislative session starts this week as well, and lawmakers there are likely to take up a revamped marriage bill. Although similar legislation failed by a narrow margin last year, it now has the backing of a much larger coalition. Organizers on our side are duplicating many of the tactics that worked in New York. That includes a strong commitment of support from the governor, as well as broad exemptions for religious organizations that want to discriminate against LGBT couples. The Maryland Assembly is scheduled to adjourn in April.
And Colorado’s legislature starts its session this week, with a group of Republicans playing catch-up by joining Democrats to support a civil unions bill. Colorado’s Constitution prohibits marriages, but a survey in September shows that 76% of Coloradans support some form of relationship recognition.
Domestic partnerships suffered a setback in Michigan this week, with anti-gay Governor Rick Snyder signing a bill that would force most government employers to deny health care benefits to domestic partners. The law is particularly cruel to LGBT families, since it only affects domestic partners while allowing benefits to continue for any other family member. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the law on behalf of teachers and local employees. Among the named plaintiffs are domestic partners who desperately need those benefits to continue, such as Barbara Ramber, who could suffer blindness if she can’t access care for her glaucoma; and Gerardo Ascheri, whose high blood pressure and cholesterol pose an immediate risk if left untreated.
There was a reprieve this week for Bradford Wells and Anthony John Makk, a San Francisco couple threatened with deportation. Despite being the primary daily caregiver for his ailing husband, Immigration Services had moved to exile Makk to his native Australia due to the Defense of Marriage Act. This week Senator Nancy Pelosi called the couple to inform them that deportation proceedings would be deferred for the next two years. That’s good news for now, but it doesn’t necessarily help the thousands of other bi-national couples facing deportation, and there’s no guarantee that the government won’t reverse course over the next two years. All of the current Republican frontrunners for President would be likely to undo the accommodations that have been made for binational LGBT couples under the Obama administration.
Those are the headlines, I’m Matt Baume at the American Foundation for Equal Rights. Visit AFER.org for more on the federal fight to overturn Prop 8. And watch for a big announcement this week about the national rollout of “8,” Dustin Lance Black’s play about the Prop 8 trial. You can also get breaking news headlines at MarriageNewsWatch.com, and don’t forget to hit “Like” to spread the words about marriage equality to your family and friends. We’ll see you next week.