Gay servicemembers demand greater equality

A protester holds signs as he celebrates the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" but demands equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

Tess Vigeland: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ended last week. For almost 18 years, the policy banned gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from openly serving in the U.S. military. In ending the rule, President Obama said, "Service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country." But the federal government continues to treat these members of the military differently when it comes to workplace benefits.

From Washington, Marketplace's David Gura reports.


David Gura: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was historic.

Leon Panetta: I believe we've moved closer to achieving the goal at the foundation of the values that America's all about. Equality, equal opportunity and dignity for all Americans.

Closer, but Lawrence Korb says we've still got a ways to go. He was an assistant secretary of defense when Ronald Reagan was president. Now Korb's a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. He says, in the military, gays and lesbians are still at a disadvantage.

Lawrence Korb: They are not eligible for all those benefits that heterosexual members of the military get.

Korb says a gay or lesbian couple couldn't get the same housing benefits as a straight couple, a military ID card or family separation allowance. A partner or a spouse wouldn't get the same health care benefits.

Korb: And they would not be allowed to shop at the commissaries and the exchanges as the dependents of other service people would be.

Jeff Schmalz is gay and lives in Dartmouth, Mass. He spent 25 years in the military -- in the Army and the National Guard. Schmalz chose to retire in 2004, after Massachusetts began to recognize same-sex marriages. He says leaving the military to get married was a difficult decision.

Jeff Schmalz: You know, if I had gotten married and stayed in the military, and I was found out, I would've lost all military benefits including retirement at age 60.

Now, seven years after he left the military, he's still worried about what will happen to the benefits he's eligible to collect.

Schmalz: What's really important to me is that, if I should die before my partner, I would like for him to be able to have access to those benefits in the same way as the spouses of straight soldiers.

Right now, his partner Andy wouldn't have access to those benefits. The Defense Department wouldn't talk to me on tape, but Eileen Lainez, a department spokeswoman, said that, to a certain extent, the Pentagon's hands are tied by something called the Defense of Marriage Act. That became law back in 1996.

Lee Badgett teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst.

Lee Badgett: It said, basically, that states would not have to recognize the marriages from other states of same-sex couples and that the federal government would not recognize them.

Now, the Obama Administration has said it thinks the law is unconstitutional, and the Justice Department isn't going to defend it in court. But federal agencies are still bound by the current law.

Badgett: They can't change that on their own. Either Congress has to change it, or it has to be struck down by the courts.

Some federal agencies have tried to find ways around the law. The State Department offers access to medical services abroad, diplomatic passports and covers moving expenses for LGBT spouses. The Department of Labor is making Federal Family and Medical Leave available to these spouses.

The availability of benefits is a sticking point for retired military who want to reenlist. David McKean, with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Service, says he's been overwhelmed with calls. He says most of them are worried about the same thing: Their families.

David McKean: They want to know that they're going to be cared for in the same way that we expect everybody else to be cared for.

Jeff Schmalz says this is about fairness, that gays, lesbians and bisexuals deserve equal treatment across the board.

Schmalz: You know, if they are serving in the military, or if they're serving in industry, they should be receiving the same benefits as everyone else.

Economics professor Lee Badgett says the tides may be turning. A third of state and local governments offer benefits to same-sex partners. And a third of the private sector does too. And now 13 of the top 25 defense contractors offer substantial benefits to the partners of LGBT employees. Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says the military is now exploring expanding benefits.

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace Money.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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