Silent Sacrifices: The Impact of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on Lesbian and Gay Military Families

By Westcott, Kathi; Sawyer, Rebecca | Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Silent Sacrifices: The Impact of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on Lesbian and Gay Military Families


Westcott, Kathi, Sawyer, Rebecca, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy


INTRODUCTION

The image of the heroes' homecoming for those returning from war has become quintessential Americana. We see it in the famous World War II photograph of a sailor's celebratory kiss with a nurse, as well as in the photographs of homecoming parades after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the first Persian Gulf War. Every day, we see poignant images of family members and friends, holding signs of endearment and pride, anxiously scanning the crowd for their loved one returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan as the ship docks or as the plane lands. We see husbands and wives hugging and kissing. We see children clinging tightly to their newly returned mother or father for fear of losing them to another deployment abroad. It is in the very public sphere of the homecoming that we celebrate and honor our nation's military members. Yet, not everyone is included in these joyous moments. Under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law banning open service, lesbian, gay, and bisexual (1) service members cannot celebrate and reunite with their loved ones in such a public space without fear of losing their job. Because of the ban on gays in the military, the sacrifices of these service members and their families are relatively unknown.

Imagine the life of the gay service member. Imagine hesitating every time a fellow service member asks about weekend plans. Imagine not being able to commit legally to your partner without fear of losing your career. Imagine not being able to enroll the child you adopted with your same-sex partner on your health care plan without fear of discovery. Imagine not being able to name your same-sex partner as a recipient on your life insurance without inviting scrutiny. Imagine not being able to have a picture of your family on your desk at work. The simplest, seemingly innocent act can spell discharge for the gay service member; their service mandates the sacrifice of silence.

Every day, the men and women of the United States armed forces make countless sacrifices in service to our nation, from constantly moving across the globe, to missing the birth of a child, to the ultimate sacrifice of giving one's life for freedom. These sacrifices are well known, as are the hardships and heartaches of those on the home front--at least, the hardships of heterosexual service members. The sacrifices of the nation's 65,000 lesbian, gay, and bisexual military personnel (2) and the one million lesbian, gay, and, bisexual veterans, however, have only recently garnered significant attention. (3) Media stories such as that of former Army Sergeant Bleu Copas, an Arabic linguist with the 82nd Airborne, illustrate the impact of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law on individual service members as well as the law's impact on the military's personnel needs. (4)

Yet the impact of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on gay military families has garnered little public attention because few families headed by a same-sex couple, in which one partner is currently serving in the armed forces, are willing to risk a career-ending move to tell their story, let alone face the loss of familial privacy by making such a public statement. The stories of gay military families in this article represent unexplored territory for not only the American public, but also for most advocates of family law. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" affects more than just the 65,000 gay military personnel currently serving, or the one million gay veterans who have served; it also impacts--emotionally, financially, and legally--the lives of the partners and children of gay service members.

It is time to hear their stories.

In Part I, we provide a brief overview of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, defining the law and providing some historical context. In Part II, we discuss three benefit areas available to service members and their families: medical, pay and housing allowances, and insurance survivor benefits. We underscore the negative ramifications for gay service members who wish to utilize those benefits in an effort to provide for and protect their families.

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