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Filed under: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

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

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.

6 Comments February 15, 2013

Report: Defense Secretary Panetta expected to extend some military benefits to same-sex families

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.

Leave a Comment February 5, 2013

Civil Unions are Unstoppable

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.

4 Comments January 10, 2012

Stepping up the Assault on DOMA

We’re counting down to the next ruling in the Prop 8 case. A Republican-backed bill in New Hampshire would replace marriage with civil unions for everyone — including siblings. Get ready for a showdown on the Defense of Marriage Act, and things are heating up in Ohio.

December 5th and 10am. That’s the deadline for the California Supreme Court to rule in the Prop 8 case. And the good news is that any way they rule is a victory for marriage equality. They could either end the case right here, with Prop 8 being found unconstitutional. Or they could allow the appeal to move forward on the merits, in which case we would prove — for a second time — that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

The ruling could come at any time, but the latest possible date is December 5th. We’ll be counting down throughout this episode and during future episodes until we have that decision.

In New Hampshire, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would end marriage equality, replacing it with severely limited legal protections for LGBT families. Governor John Lynch opposes the measure, and so do most residents. A survey earlier this month shows just 27% support repeal, compared with 50% who are opposed. And 44% say that they’re more likely to vote against an anti-gay candidate, compared to just 14% who were more likely to vote for an anti-gay politician.

One weird quirk of the proposed bill is that it wouldn’t just apply to LGBTs. It would also allow siblings to form a civil union. The bill is sponsored by Representative David Bates, who so far has avoided explaining his eagerness to facilitate consanguinity.

Meanwhile a growing bi-partisan coalition opposes the measure. Visit StandingUpForNHFamilies.org to learn more about the organization, which includes a former New Hampshire Chief Justice, Vice-Chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, a former New Hampshire Attorney General, local business leaders, politicians, and a wide array of other public figures.

Ohio’s stepping up pressure on legislators with a rally planned for this Saturday, November 5th. Equality Ohio is joining forces with a Catholic organization, GetEQUAL, and an equality org from neighboring Kentucky for a rally from 11am to 6pm in Fountain Square in Cincinnati. The action comes on the heels of a recent survey from October showing 62% of voters support some form of legal recognition for same sex couples, with only 34% opposed.

In national news, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold debate on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday of this week. The committee is dominated by co-sponsors of the bill, so it’s likely to have an easy passage. From there, it moves to the full Senate, where its survival is far less certain.

But the assault on DOMA continues to ramp up on multiple fronts, with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filing a lawsuit this week on behalf of soldiers and veterans. Even with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, gay and lesbian servicemembers are still prohibited from accessing the same spousal benefits that are available to straight colleagues.

And in Brazil this week, the country’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lesbian couple seeking to have their civil union recognized as a marriage. The long-term effects of this ruling are unclear, since it isn’t binding in state courts and may apply exclusively to this one couple, so we’ll need to pay close attention to see what the next steps are from Brazilian activists.

That’s the news for this week, join us online at AFER.org for the latest on the federal challenge to Proposition 8, and visit MarriageNewsWatch.com for more breaking news headlines. We’ll see you next week.

11 Comments October 31, 2011

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is history

By Adam Bink

As of now, the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is finally a memory. At the stroke of midnight, the policy ended, approximately 9 months after Congress voted to repeal it and the President signed that repeal into law.

Phew.

The proudest memory I have in this fight is working with the Courage team and all of you at Prop8TrialTracker…sharing information on the whip count, reporting back after calls to Senators, pushing back on mis-information. I took a trip down memory lane through some past coverage and thought you’d like to join. Some highlights from late in the fight:

The comments are just so much fun to read back through. What a mighty force we were, together, pushing this thing home. Just like in New York State on marriage equality, we kept pushing and pushing and pushing until it was finished.

And to all the servicemembers who served in silence, or who took a stand and stood up, thank you for both your service and your courage. It took courage to do either, and you helped get a nation to pay attention to this injustice.

For more coverage, here’s the link to all the posts on that topic.

Let’s close with three stats. Those numbers are 5,730; 226,779; and 723,145.

Those are the numbers of phone calls Courage members and P8TTers made to Senators; letters we wrote to family and friends; and signatures delivered in support of repeal. Truly remarkable. And when compared with other allied member organizations, bloggers, blog readers and folks in Congress carrying the banner high like Patrick Murphy, we could do anything.

The fight pivots to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. We need your help to do that. Right now, servicemembers can serve openly and honestly, but a lesbian Air Force servicemember cannot obtain health insurance for her spouse. The spouse of a gay Marine does not receive survivor benefits if his husband dies in the line of duty. They serve their country, but don’t get what should be coming down them. They’re still treated as second-class servicemembers. That’s where we come in. We repealed one law after a long push. And we can do it again.

This is an open thread for coverage of this proud day.

Update: A wonderful piece from former Rep. Patrick Murphy on Huffington Post, and a wonderful profile in the NYTimes on JD Smith, now better known as Josh, who is able to be open about his identity and his work with OutServe.

Update 2: Statement from President Obama:

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 20, 2011

Statement by the President on the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Today, the discriminatory law known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is finally and formally repealed. As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members. And today, as Commander in Chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service.

I was proud to sign the Repeal Act into law last December because I knew that it would enhance our national security, increase our military readiness, and bring us closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans. Today’s achievement is a tribute to all the patriots who fought and marched for change; to Members of Congress, from both parties, who voted for repeal; to our civilian and military leaders who ensured a smooth transition; and to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform who showed that they were ready to move forward together, as one team, to meet the missions we ask of them.

For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans. Today, every American can be proud that we have taken another great step toward keeping our military the finest in the world and toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals.

###

Update 3: A transcript of today’s news conference with Secretary Panetta and Admiral Mullen on DADT and other topics.

Update 4: In response to today’s events, the government filed a suggestion of mootness and motion to dismiss the complain in the LCR v. USA case.

51 Comments September 19, 2011

70 years later, a welcome change for a Navy veteran

Thanks to Kathleen for passing this story along

By Adam Bink

What an interesting and heartwarming tale:

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Nearly 70 years after expelling Melvin Dwork for being gay, the Navy is changing his discharge from “undesirable” to “honorable” — marking what is believed to be the first time the Pentagon has taken such a step on behalf of a World War II veteran since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The Navy notified the 89-year-old former corpsman last month that he will now be eligible for the benefits he had long been denied, including medical care and a military burial.

Dwork spent decades fighting to remove the blot on his record.

“I resented that word ‘undesirable,’” said Dwork, who was expelled in 1944, at the height of the war, and is now a successful interior designer in New York. “That word really stuck in my craw. To me it was a terrible insult. It had to be righted. It’s really worse than ‘dishonorable.’ I think it was the worst word they could have used.”

For Dwork, victory came with a heartbreaking truth: Last year, when the Navy finally released his records, he learned that his name had been given up by his own boyfriend at the time.

The decision to amend his discharge papers was made by the Board for Corrections of Naval Records in Washington.

In its Aug. 17 proceedings, obtained by The Associated Press, the board noted that the Navy has undergone a “radical departure” from the outright ban on gays that was in place in 1944. The board pointed out Dwork’s “exemplary period of active duty” and said that changing the terms of his discharge was done “in the interest of justice.”

Navy officials declined to discuss Dwork’s case, citing privacy reasons.

“I think that with the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ there is a growing realization within the military that not only gays be allowed to serve openly now but this was probably the wrong policy all along,” said Aaron Belkin, an expert on gays in the U.S. military at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He added: “This illustrates, at least in the case of one person, that the military is trying to set things right.”

About 100,000 troops were discharged between World War II and 1993 for being gay and lost their benefits as a result, Belkin said. Under the more relaxed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gays to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves, about 14,000 troops were forced out, but most were given honorable discharges that allowed them to draw benefits. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” officially takes effect Tuesday.

Wrong made right, nearly 70 years later. Amazing.

20 Comments September 17, 2011

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