Nibbling around the edges until DOMA falls

Sgt. Donna R. Johnson (N.C. Army National Guard via the AP)

Sgt. Donna R. Johnson (N.C. Army National Guard via the AP)

The Post reported on Sunday that the second term of President Obama could finally see him use executive authority to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors. Yesterday, gay men and lesbians serving in the armed forces marched a step closer to equality with the Pentagon announcement that additional benefits would be extended to same-sex couples. But an op-ed by Tracy Johnson in The Post gets to why this isn’t enough. As long as the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) remains law, there will never be fairness and equal protection under the law.

Tracy and Donna Johnson were members of the military. They were married in Washington, D.C., last Valentine’s Day, after the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell.” But when Donna died four months ago, Tracy was denied the courtesies and benefits afforded the widow of a service member killed in the line of duty.

Usually, widowed spouses are personally informed by a casualty officer and provided with grief counseling. They are invited to meet the casket as it is returned to American soil. Later, during the funeral service, they are ceremonially presented with the flag that covered their loved one’s coffin.

 

On the day my wife died, I read online that three soldiers had been killed in the area where Donna was stationed. She hadn’t called home that morning, breaking our routine. As my worry grew, I got a call from my in-laws. A pair of national guardsmen had gone to their home, not mine.

 

Although Donna and I were legally married in the District of Columbia last February, I was denied the ceremonies, rituals and spousal survivor’s benefits that usually go to widows because Donna and I are both women.

While it is heartening to hear that Johnson says she has been treated with “compassion and care,” it is deplorable that people who serve our country and the families they leave behind are treated like second-class citizens. Johnson deserves better than this. All federal employees deserve better than this.

Maureen Madden is a federal employee I met at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit last November in Baltimore. She shared with me a presentation on the inequity of federal benefits for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees she made at her agency. Because of DOMA, some of the benefits denied the partners and spouses of federal employees are health insurance, retiree health benefits and survivor pension benefits.

Now, here’s the kicker. Those same benefits are available to the LGBT employees of private contractors within her agency. So, people who want to serve their country by working for the federal government put themselves at a disadvantage by doing so. Meanwhile, DOMA puts the federal government at a disadvantage, as it no doubt loses out on talent to a private sector willing to treat LGBT employees with respect.

Of course, no matter where one works, DOMA places burdens on LGBT Americans and their families. The income inequality it fosters is felt on a daily basis. DOMA prevents loving same-sex couples from marrying. It prohibits them from receiving the Social Security and veterans benefits (if applicable) of a deceased spouse. And it denies them more than 1,130 rights and responsibilities that heterosexual married couples take for granted.

“We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families — gay and straight,” Obama said last night in his State of the Union address. Until DOMA falls either at the hands of the Supreme Court or Congress, the actions taken by the Pentagon and potentially by the president is nothing more than nibbling around the edges.

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