Less than two years since soldiers at Fort Hood were prohibited from being openly gay, same-sex married couples in the Army now have more rights than other same-sex Texas couples.
After the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act last week, all military spouses will now receive full military benefits, regardless of their sexual orientation, the Pentagon said.
Many federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, look at where you live before issuing marriage benefits — such as filing joint tax returns.
The Department of Defense, however, looks at where you were married to decide what benefits you receive.
Same-sex military couples who were married in one of the 13 states that issue same-sex marriage licenses will now receive their federal benefits regardless of the state or country where they live.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Wednesday that the DOD will offer the benefits “as soon as possible.” The DOMA decision will not be effective until 25 days from the court’s ruling.
“Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment,” Hagel said. “(Wednesday’s) ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”
State governments will continue to decide who is married and who is not. However, military installations, such as Fort Hood, are a legal middle ground for gay married couples, where their relationships are recognized.
Dion McFall of Killeen has followed the issue of gay rights in the military as co-chair of the Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas, a pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political action group.
“It’s crazy, as soon as you step on federal land, you are recognized and as soon as you step back in the state you lose that right,” McFall said.
Living in a military community, McFall said the Army still has a long way to go toward making LGBT soldiers feel comfortable on post.
“With ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ only a little bit behind us, there is still a lot of hesitation about gender identity and sexual orientation in the military,” McFall said.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” law prohibited service members from “demonstrating a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts,” while serving in the armed forces. The law was repealed by Congress in 2010 and updated by the Defense Department in September 2011.
Regardless of which side of the fence they live on, Fort Hood spouses in same-sex marriages will now qualify for spousal identification cards, Tricare medical insurance, dependent rate housing, family separation allowances, the right to move off post to live with their spouse, command-sponsored visas, joint duty assignments and access to legal assistance.
Spouses also will gain access to military installations and facilities, including commissaries, exchanges, Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers and family center programs.
Non-cash benefits make up 70 percent of a service member’s compensation, according to report released last week by a national coalition of gay and lesbian legal defenders.
The fact that service members rely so heavily on government subsidies makes relationship status an important distinction for the Army, said Jennifer Pizer, senior council at Lambda Legal, one of the agencies that contributed to the report.
“Most of us receive a paycheck and spend our money on things like rent, health insurance,” Pizer said.
“In the military, much of the life is subsidized. Things like who has shopping privileges make a big difference in people’s lives.”
Pizer said inconsistencies between federal laws and state laws creates complicated situations for same-sex couples who cross state lines, many times for work or military service.
“There are all types of legal claims that depend on a relationship that the law recognizes,” Pizer said.
If a spouse in a same-sex marriage is injured in a drunk-driving accident while traveling in a state where same-sex marriages aren’t recognized, she could lose her right to file a claim for the loss of her partner, Pizer said.
“If it is a claim based on a relationship and Texas doesn’t recognize that relationship, then that legal claim doesn’t exist,” Pizer said.
It will take some time for the Defense Department to change forms, implement procedures, train personnel and incorporate same-sex couples into the spousal-based system, Pizer said. Changes also might be in store for other federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service.
The issue of same-sex marriage complicates the country’s legal system because it tangles religion and law, Pizer said.
“Marriage is a religions status but it is also a legal status, and we live in a world of legal rules that need to be clearly defined,” Pizer said.
“When federal and state laws get out of synch, it does create practical problems that people should consider.”