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Some States are Still Denying Benefits to Same-Sex Military Couples

Back in mid-August, Pentagon officials announced that, beginning no later than September 3, the Department of Defense will extend federal benefits to same-sex spouses of military personnel and civilian defense employees. The military will treat heterosexual and homosexual married couples the same. Moreover, the Pentagon will grant leave to homosexual couples stationed outside jurisdictions that recognize gay marriage so those couples can travel to one of thirteen states or the District of Columbia, which do recognize gay marriage, to be married. Spouses of gay service members and Department of Defense civilians will be eligible for health benefits and housing allowances. “The Department of Defense remains committed to ensuring that all men and women who serve in the U.S. military and their families,” the Pentagon’s pronouncement read, “are treated fairly and equally as the law directs.”

Gay rights activists immediately lauded the announcement. Conservative opponents decried it -- and as of this writing, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas are refusing to process benefits requests for their respective National Guards.

Senator James Inhofe, the senior Republican senator from Oklahoma, declared in a written statement that “This administration is eroding our military’s apolitical stance by using it as their [sic] activism arm for their [sic] liberal social agenda.” Senator Inhofe’s complaint undoubtedly reflects the views held by millions of Americans and perhaps most of his constituents. Unfortunately, it is historically inaccurate.

America’s military has always been used to espouse a liberal social agenda -- except when it is used to advance a conservative social agenda. The American military exists under civilian command. These civilians are either elected by their fellow citizens or appointed and confirmed by elected officials. As a result, military personnel policy, for better or worse, tends to reflect the political aims of those who are trying to conserve, change, or simply reflect realities in the civilian population. American military personnel policy is, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, politics by other means.

Political considerations have influenced military personnel policy since the Revolutionary War. General George Washington agreed with his fellow slaveholding Virginian plantation owners that African Americans -- slave or free -- had no place in the Continental Army. Virginia’s population at the time was nearly 50 percent African American. General Washington believed that no good could arise from schooling black men in militaristic self-defense. A desperate need for manpower later led the Continental Army to accept African Americans but as soon as the war was won they were expelled. The Continental Congress banned them from army service, thereby enacting a military personnel policy designed to conserve the racial status quo.

During World War II, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) sponsored legislation to establish the Women’s Army Corps and worked tirelessly to increase the role and participation of women in the military. She personally pressured admirals to recruit women for naval service. “That is what government of the people, by the people, and for the people means,” she explained, “and women are people equally with men.”

A primary reason why in 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces was to affect change in the civilian population. He knew Congress was unlikely to pass meaningful civil rights legislation and took unilateral action to change the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of American families. By the time the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate America’s public schools, black and white children had been attending integrated schools on military bases for years.

In recognizing gay marriage, the Department of Defense is at once reflecting popular sentiment and leading the way toward greater acceptance of gay marriage.

Just ten years ago the notion that the military would confer benefits to homosexual spouses would have seemed ludicrous. Today wide swaths of America’s civilian population approve of gay marriage and the Pentagon’s announcement reflects this.

To be sure, thirteen states do not comprise even a plurality of the union, and, in this way, Senator Inhofe is correct: The military, because of its size and the esteem in which it is regarded, is setting an example for the civilians it protects. With each election year, more states likely will recognize gay marriage. Fewer gay service members will have to travel to a distant state to marry and American military personnel policy will remain interwoven with political ideals. But in a democracy, it should be no other way.