For now, Joseph Marcey resides thousands of miles away in Washington. He would have to apply for a tourist visa every 90 days to live in Okinawa, and he wouldn’t be able to receive medical care at military clinics, shop at a commissary or obtain a dependent ID card from the Defense Department.
“The workarounds for our situation are too cumbersome to be worthwhile,” Watkins said.
While much attention has gone to federal workers who have recently gained the government’s recognition of their same-sex marriages, employees such as Watson have fallen into an unanticipated category in which diplomatic issues have seemingly trumped federal policy.
The challenge has arisen in countries where same-sex marriage is not accepted. As a result, U.S. employees and volunteers with agencies such as the State Department, the Peace Corps and the Defense Department must wrestle with how to do their jobs while honoring who they are and their host country’s values.
The lives of same-sex couples serving abroad often revert to a less-tolerant past — a time before the DOMA ruling, the State Department’s new policy of treating all visa applicants equally, or the agency’s 2009 decision to extend legally permissible benefits to the domestic partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) diplomats.
A spokesman for the Pentagon said the agency is looking into how it should deal with Watkins’s case and others like it.
“DOD is planning a careful review of command sponsorship for overseas tours, as well as all applicable status of forces agreements,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said. “The review of applicable status of forces agreements will be done in coordination with the Department of State.”
Jeremy Curtin, the department’s top human resources adviser on LGBT issues, said the Obama administration is working through the international challenges.
“With DOMA overturned, the whole government is trying to put in rules where same-sex couples are treated the same as any other spouses,” he said. “Up until now, we have not talked about these partnerships as being marriages.”
The rules of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations require nations to grant diplomatic immunity to foreign-
service workers, meaning they are supposed to be subject to the laws of their native country. Still, some governments ignore those guidelines when it comes to same-sex marriage, forcing the State Department to seek workarounds.
“If there is not direct recognition, then we have to find ways to accommodate them,” Curtin said. “Our goal in the State Department is to get equal treatment for all of our employees and their whole families.”