Defense Secretary Goes Ballistic About Military's Discrimination Against Gay Soldiers

Nine states are still denying LGBT soldiers and their families equal benefits.

Defense Secretary Goes Ballistic About Military's Discrimination Against Gay Soldiers

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington October 17, 2013. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters; Design by Lauren Wade)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

Alicia Butler was absolutely thrilled this year when the U.S. Department of Defense announced extending benefits to same-sex spouses of military personnel after a major part of the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of gay marriages was struck down.

As moms to a sweet newborn daughter, Butler and her wife, Army National Guard 1st Lt. Judith Chedville, were so thrilled that they drove to Camp Mabry near their house in Austin, Texas to register Butler for federal benefits and a military ID for base access that very first day of eligibility, Sept. 3, 2013.

Instead, Butler was turned away, even after showing a valid marriage license from California, and told to register instead at a federal facility a lengthy drive away.

“It has created a hardship with her family,” says Paul Castillo, the attorney for advocacy nonprofit Lambda Legal, which represents Butler. “For her, to go to a federal facility would take three hours, a significant hardship, and also trying to arrange for childcare.”

Butler isn’t alone.

Since September, Texas and eight other states—Indiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia—have refused to grant military IDs and federal benefits at National Guard bases to same-sex spouses of military members, citing their state bans on gay marriage.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, taking a rare and vocal straight-from-the-Pentagon stance in a New York City speech on Thursday, deemed their actions a violation of state obligations under federal law. He called for an immediate remedy, asking National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass to meet with the Adjutants General from the nine states.

The battle between states opposed to gay marriage and our federal government acknowledging gay marriage and same-sex military marriages has been bubbling and brewing, and may be about to boil over.

While the Supreme Court dashed Section 3 of DOMA, thus allowing for federal recognition of gay marriage, it didn’t challenge Section 2, which maintains that states and territories can deny recognition of same-sex wedded unions officiated in states where they’re legally recognized.

However, while the head of the Texas National Guard, for instance, technically reports to the governor of that state, a state opposing gay marriage, says Castillo, the National Guard is still bound by federal regulations and guidelines.

“Secretary Hagel’s words and actions are very appropriate,” says Ross Murray, director of news at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “He wants to make sure his military personnel are being protected, and that their rights aren’t taken away. We hold out hope that the states will come to their senses that actively hurting and harming people who serve their country will not benefit them.”

Yet states have echoed Georgia's public announcement today that they will ignore Hagel’s directive.

So what to do? Send in the troops to enforce this generation's civil rights fight? It’s been almost 60 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring state statutes of “separate but equal” public school segregation by race unconstitutional and ushering in an age of federally reinforced desegregation especially targeting Southern states. 

Other less extreme options also exist, say gay rights activists.

Federal funds could be held if states don’t comply, or the federal government could rethink where they put bases, especially in non-compliant states, says Murray. Attitudes towards gay marriage are also being tackled from the inside, with groups such as the American Military Partner Association and Campaign for Southern Equality.

The federal government could even file suit against non-compliant states, says Ian Thompson, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C.-based legislative representative who deals with issues impacting the LGBT community.

“Hopefully states will see the light,” he says.

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