Tania Dunbar celebrated a first in her 13-year Army career Sunday: She donned her uniform and proudly introduced Deborah Graham as her wife, not the “cousin” who had previously joined her around Fort Stewart in Georgia.
The formal end Tuesday of the military’s 18-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on service members revealing their homosexuality has allowed the couple to share the news that they married in the District in May.
No more living 50 miles from the Army base to avoid Dunbar’s colleagues. No more homecomings like the one last year when Dunbar, a missile systems technician, returned from Iraq: Graham said she stayed away from the families’ welcome-home ceremony, worried that an emotional reunion would spark too many questions.
“My partner was out there fighting,” Graham said, “but she came home and couldn’t acknowledge me.”
The couple joined 60 other people, including founding members of the nascent Military Partners and Families Coalition, on Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the spouses, partners, girlfriends and boyfriends who endured years of secrecy and isolation. Many said they worked hard to remain hidden, even guarding their relationships from their colleagues and friends lest they “slip up” and jeopardize their partners’ military careers.
Several said they never found other partners of gay and lesbian service members for support until recently because — in the eyes of the Pentagon — none were allowed to exist publicly.
Ariana Bostian-Kentes, of Ann Arbor, Mich., said she helped form the coalition last fall, after she met other partners of gay and lesbian service members at a Pentagon meeting about the end of the ban. While the group has 15 military families, she said, they represent “hundreds” more who are only now emerging.
“We were not open to the gay community because we were military families,” said Bostian-Kentes, whose partner of four years is in the Army and stationed in Afghanistan. “We weren’t open to the military community because we were gay families.”
Bostian-Kentes said gay military partners experienced the same stresses of other military families but lacked the official support groups that prepare most families for a deployment or help them relocate after a transfer. The lifting of “don’t ask, don’t tell” did not allow same-sex military partners to receive health insurance or housing benefits.
Meg Rapelye, a graduate student in Chester, Va., said she’s relieved knowing that her partner, Katrina Goguen, can no longer be fired from her 19-year Coast Guard career because of their five-year relationship. Rapelye said she has yet to formally adopt their 10-month-old daughter, Elly Goguen, because doing so before last week would have raised too many red flags.
“I was basically [known as] the roommate-slash-live-in-nanny” among many of Goguen’s Coast Guard colleagues, Rapelye said.While bouncing Elly on one hip, she said, “I had to deny I was her mother if we didn’t know that someone was safe to tell.”
Ivan Amir of Northeast said he’s happy he will no longer have to attend military functions as the pretend date of one of his partner’s female colleagues. His partner of two years, Joey Keyes, is an Air Force reservist and a Pentagon civilian employee.
“Now I’m actually recognized in a supporting role,” Amir said. “I never felt appreciated like that.”
Several couples said they’re still getting used to life after the ban. As Dunbar said with a laugh, “It’s not like we all stood up on Sept. 20 and said ‘I’m gay!’ ”
She said she will probably tell colleagues gradually that the “boyfriend” she sometimes mentioned in conversation is really her wife.
“When the Army Ball comes up and I have a date,” she said, smiling at Graham, “it’ll come up, I’m sure.”