The decision represents the Obama administration’s latest effort to expand legal rights for same-sex couples. It also comes at a time of growing momentum for those campaigning for the full equality of gay men and lesbians.
In his inaugural address last month, President Obama appealed for gay Americans to be “treated like anyone else under the law.” Last weekend, he said he thinks it is time for the Boy Scouts of America to end its ban on gay members and leaders.
Supporters of gay service members welcomed the Pentagon’s decision on Tuesday, noting that it may shore up support for marriage equality in the lead-up to a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex unions.
“If you provide benefits to individuals seen as the most deserving and the social fabric doesn’t tear, that does make it easier down the line to do away with DOMA,” said Tammy S. Schultz, the director of the National Security and Joint Warfare Program at the Marine Corps War College, who has studied implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops. “It could be a flanking maneuver to keep chipping away at it.”
The new guidelines will be departing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta’s final imprint on the armed forces. They also will come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken during 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 quandaries that have emerged since the ban on openly gay troops was lifted in September 2011, following congressional repeal of the law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The military “has established a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families,” said Allyson Robinson, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization that has been pressing the Pentagon to expand benefits to same-sex couples. “It’s an untenable leadership situation.”
Panetta is expected to make the announcement this week, according to a U.S. official and a congressional aide briefed on the decision. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement has not been made.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment.
Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the department has been conducting a “deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.” She noted that the Defense Department already grants some benefits to same-sex spouses, mainly relating to troop deaths and other emergencies.