Letter to Secretary Panetta on "End Discrimination Against Same-Sex Military Families"

Letter

By:  Dina Titus
Date: Feb. 6, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Today Congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada's First District joined her colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging him to take action that will address the unequal status and treatment of same-sex military families.

"In the 111th Congress, I proudly voted to end the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the institutionalized discrimination that cost our nation thousands of qualified servicemen and women who were ready and willing to bravely serve their country," Congresswoman Titus said. "It has been almost two years since the repeal of that draconian policy, yet gay and bisexual service members continue to be treated unequally."

According to a 2010 report issued by the Department of Defense's Comprehensive Review Working Group which examined issues associated with the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the DOD has the regulatory authority to revise its policies and extend eligibility for many of the military benefits provided to military families to same-sex couples and their children.

Seventeen months after the policy was finally repealed, however, same-sex families have yet to receive equal benefits afforded to their heterosexual colleagues. These benefits include: military hospital visitation rights, joint duty assignments, housing privileges, access to the commissary and exchanges, and family support and counseling services.

"It is time that our military does what is right and takes the steps necessary to extend these benefits to all American service members," Titus said. "Gay and lesbian service members make the same sacrifice as their straight counterparts when they put on our nation's uniform and march into battle. Why should they not receive the same rights and benefits for their service?"

In an effort to address these issues, Congresswoman Titus and 37 of her House colleagues sent a letter to Secretary Panetta urging immediate action to extend benefits and privileges to all service members. The full text of the letter can be found here:

Dear Secretary Panetta,

As you prepare to leave the Defense Department, please accept our gratitude for your years of service to the Nation, including your many years as a member of the House of Representatives.

During your tenure, the American military has taken the historic step of stopping discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual service members by ending the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), which allowed these individuals to serve in the military, provided they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This change has not only made our military a truer reflection of the country it protects, but it has also occurred without any of the disruption that critics had predicted. Much of that is due to your leadership and the senior leadership of the Armed Services.

However, as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits -- from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries. As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.

We understand that most of the benefits available to veterans, service members and their families are granted directly by Congress. Well over a hundred of these statutory benefits are contingent on marital status. These benefits will remain unavailable to legally married same-sex couples unless the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year or individual statutes are modified by Congress. In the meantime, there are several executive actions that you can take to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families.

We strongly urge you to issue same sex spouses military identification cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). This is the easiest and simplest step to include same sex partners as part of the Department of Defense family.

We urge you to allow same sex partners access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Current regulations leave open to Installation Commanders the possibility of opening up limited access to certain MWR programs to guests and the general public. These exceptions would be applied regardless of sexual orientation or individual situations; in other words, a same-sex spouse could receive guest privileges, just as the girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member receives at present, and would likely be treated as any non-dependent member of the public.

We also urge you to allow same sex partners access to family programs. DoD uses a flexible definition of "family" for the purpose of implementing Family Centers and programming, but leaves it up to the individual Service Secretaries to determine eligibility. Thus, each branch of the service (and each installation commander) determines the extent to which same-sex spouses and partners have access to these programs, which include deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.

Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens. As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well."

We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.

Sincerely,

Members of Congress