RALEIGH, N.C. — Sgt. Karen Alexander fought for her country in Iraq, but back home she often feels the U.S. Army is fighting against her.
Married to another female soldier with a 4-year-old son, Alexander is denied the same housing allowance and other family-friendly benefits she would be entitled to if married to a man. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, she’s single.
“I’m married to my best friend, who just happens to be of the same sex as me,” said Alexander, 29, who is stationed at Fort Bragg. “We fight for everyone else’s rights, but we’re treated as second-class citizens.”
Nearly a year and half after President Obama and Congress ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” same-sex couples face daily reminders of the conflict inherent in serving openly as gays and lesbians under a government that still refuses to acknowledge their relationships.
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Pentagon officials say they are bound by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which forbids the federal government from recognizing any marriage other than that between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA in June, but advocacy groups say there are numerous steps the Pentagon could take now to treat same-sex military couples more fairly.
Among the steps proposed by such advocacy groups as OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the American Military Partner Association are issuing military IDs to same-sex spouses, ensuring spouses have full access to on-base social programs and letting same-sex couples qualify for military housing.
“Clearly DOMA prevents commanders from truly treating their service members equally, but there is so much they could do to treat them with greater equity,” said Allyson Robinson, OutServe-SLDN’s executive director.
The Defense Department’s public response to these proposals hasn’t changed in the past year.
“The Department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen wrote in an email. “The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective.”
Almost verbatim, that’s the same message conveyed to gay-rights activists in March 2012 by acting Undersecretary of Defense Jo Ann Rooney.
Robinson said it was possible military leaders were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA. If the law is struck down, the military would have a clear path to treat married same-sex couples equally.
“If they’re waiting, that in itself is a troubling decision,” Robinson said.
The next step for the activist groups will be putting pressure on Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, in hopes that he will take up the cause if he is confirmed.
Hagel, a former Republican senator, has apologized for 1998 remarks referring to an ambassadorial nominee as “openly, aggressively gay” and he pledged last week in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to “do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
While Pentagon leaders ponder the issue, Alexander and her wife, Pvt. Allison Hanson, struggle to pay bills.
The two met in an Army-training program for chemical, biological and nuclear warfare in 2010. They got married last year in Washington, D.C., one of an increasing number of places where same-sex marriage is legal.
Despite assurances to the contrary before she transferred, it was only after Alexander reported for duty at Fort Bragg in September that the couple learned post officials would not approve money for off-base housing, even the lesser amount provided to single soldiers with no dependents. Hanson said exceptions are routinely granted to unmarried heterosexual soldiers for various domestic reasons, and that she believes Bragg commanders have the discretion to do so in Alexander’s case if they wanted to.
“I can’t live in the barracks with her,” said Hanson, a National Guard soldier who lost her job when she followed Alexander to North Carolina.
The couple got a tiny one-bedroom apartment in nearby Fayetteville. After rent, the payment for their shared car, insurance, utilities and other bills, Alexander’s enlisted salary provides them less than a $100 a week.
“I don’t know if people have this ‘Will and Grace’ image of how homosexuals live, like we’re all rich or something, but that’s not the case at all,” Alexander said.
Hanson made the decision to send her son to live with her ex-husband in Utah because they cannot afford to care for him.