The issue also surfaced during the confirmation hearing of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who has disavowed disparaging remarks he made in 1998 about an openly gay ambassador. Hagel sought to reassure senators during his opening remarks last week, saying he is “fully committed” to implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops and saying he would do “everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
Activists and lawmakers who champion gay rights say they recognize that many benefits mandated by federal law will remain unavailable to military gay couples because of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month about the constitutionality of the law, which lower courts have struck down. The court will rule on the issue before the end of June.
Still, gay rights activists and lawmakers who have pushed the Pentagon to offer benefits to same-sex couples say the military can take meaningful steps now. These include offering gay spouses military identification cards and access to commissaries and family support programs. The military also could offer same-sex couples transportation privileges for couples stationed abroad, according to those pressing for expanded benefits.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Panetta co-signed by 25 lawmakers urging him to extend these benefits as a matter of policy.
“As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same-sex spouses and their families,” the congressman wrote. “Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also appealed to Panetta, a civil rights champion who often talks about being the son of Italian immigrants, not to leave office without tackling this issue.
“Before you retire, and to secure your legacy on this critical issue, we urge you to change Defense Department rules to extend as many benefits as possible,” she wrote in a Jan. 28 letter co-signed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
The Army has wrestled in recent weeks with a controversy at Fort Bragg, N.C., that has given the issue greater urgency. After the wife of a female lieutenant colonel was denied membership at the officers’ spouses organization in December, ostensibly for not having a military ID, her case made national news. It prompted the Marine Corps to issue a memo saying that groups at its bases nationwide could not reject prospective members on the basis of sexual orientation.
The spouses group backed down last month, offering the officer’s wife, Ashley Broadway, full membership. The announcement came the same day Broadway learned that she had been named Fort Bragg spouse of the year by Military Spouse magazine.
Julie Tate and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.