DADT repeal benefits servicemembers’ children, though inequalities remain

David McKean

When repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers goes into effect September 20, children of those servicemembers will reap many benefits. But they will still lack many of the protections available to children with opposite-sex parents because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents recognition of same-sex spouses by the federal government.

All children with legal parents or guardians in the military are entitled to an array of benefits, including health care, on-base schools, and a variety of recreation and support services, regardless of the sexual orientation of their parents.

And all servicemembers with dependents receive additional housing and moving allowances.

But gay servicemembers with a partner or spouse and children have not been as free to access those benefits. Prior to repeal of DADT, they had reason to fear that revealing anything about their families could lead to dismissal, said David McKean, legal director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

McKean explained that gay servicemembers have sometimes even hesitated to register their children as dependents, out of fear that the military would ask questions about the other parent.

“They’ve often decided that the non-military spouse will be the one to execute the formal adoption or to be the biological mother and therefore not run into problems with DADT.”

But if the servicemember is not a legal parent or guardian, the child gets no military benefits, and the family does not get the housing and moving allowances due to servicemembers with dependents.

Jane Smith, a major in the U.S. Army, is raising young twins with her same-sex spouse, to whom she is legally married. (Smith asked that her real name not be used, so that she could come out to her colleagues at her own time.) Although both women are legal parents, they have still encountered problems because of DADT.

The greatest hardship for her has been not being able to speak openly about her family without risking her job—the family’s sole means of support.

It has been “a real challenge” having twins under DADT, she said. “Twins are dramatic,” she explained, and people often want to talk about them with her.

“I have to reduce my wife to being some type of clinical surrogate to describe how I got these babies,” she said.

And as an officer, said Smith, “I have soldiers who look to me for guidance.” It has been difficult to offer family advice, such as how she and her spouse deal with newborns, “and actually give them a truthful description of the dynamics in the house.”

As her children have gotten older, the problems have increased.

“My little girl just said ‘Mama’ for the first time—but then I thought, imagine if I played this out and DADT were not being repealed.”

If someone overheard the children calling both her and her spouse “Mama” while the family was at the base commissary buying groceries, she could have lost her job under DADT, she said.

The biggest impact of repeal for her, said Smith, will be not having to worry that “my job’s at risk every day for reasons that have nothing to do with my performance.”

McKean also noted that gay servicemembers with older children have sometimes been reluctant to enroll them in on-base schools, for fear they would talk about their home lives and spark an investigation or discharge under DADT.

After repeal, the fact that children of same-sex couples won’t be “in constant fear” of outing one or both parents, is “going to be enormous,” McKean said.

A continuing problem, however, is that, because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the military will still not recognize same-sex spouses, nor issue them military IDs like it does for opposite-sex spouses. They cannot live in base housing or get health coverage, moving allowances, job placement assistance, or other spousal benefits that help the entire family.

And without a military ID, Smith’s spouse cannot even bring their children on base for medical appointments. Because Smith is working full-time, she cannot easily take time off herself to do so. So she has had to resort to expensive private medical insurance for her children as well as her spouse.

Smith is also unable to obtain life insurance through the military for her spouse, which would provide money to cover child care if her spouse—who now stays home with the children—died.

Another problem for some families is that, whereas stepchildren of straight servicemembers become eligible for military benefits, stepchildren gained when a servicemember marries a same-sex spouse do not.

Same-sex parents have had to resort to creative ways to get around some of these issues. If the spouse is appointed as the child’s caregiver, for example, he or she might, depending on base policy, be able to live in base housing, “not as the spouse, but as the child’s caregiver, the same way you could have a nanny come live with you,” said McKean.

But DADT repeal will make it easier for the non-military parent to gain some on-base access at critical times. A servicemember will be freer to name a same-sex spouse or partner as a child’s caregiver on a “Family Care Plan” stating who will take care of the children when a servicemember is deployed or dies. This gives the person access to shopping, counseling, and other on-base services on behalf of the children during the servicemember’s deployment.

Prior to repeal, gay servicemembers could name a same-sex partner on a Family Care Plan, but they had to be “very careful” in doing so, for fear of triggering a DADT investigation, McKean said. “Having that conversation be out in the open and fully inclusive will be an enormous relief to same-sex families.”

2 Responses to DADT repeal benefits servicemembers’ children, though inequalities remain

  1. MJ says:

    This is our exact situation. My partner has been in the Army 9 years, we have 3 children together. Just in the last year, we decided to complete a same sex adoption so that she could place the kids on Tri-care and we would start receiving the BAH that we had lived without for so long. When our youngest was born and rushed directly o the NICU, my partner was unable to take time off to stay with us at the hospital. Our youngest still struggles, medically, and yet my partner has been really skeptical about discussing this with her chain of command for fear that it will raise to many questions. This has been a LONG road.

  2. […] step towards addressing the inequalities for lesbian and gay servicemembers. But as I reported for Keen News Service a few weeks ago, DOMA still means many benefits are denied to their families, and children are […]

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