WASHINGTON — LGBT organization leaders have begun publicly expressing their growing frustration at the pace of the Pentagon in addressing the way the military treats the partners and families of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.
LGBT organizations have been seeking the changes for sometime, but they have kept their campaign largely behind the scenes, hoping that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would take action.
But in recent weeks — and as Panetta is preparing to leave the Pentagon — leaders have begun to believe he is, in the words of the Human Rights Campaign, “dragging [his] heels on equality” and are now ratcheting up the pressure.
On Wednesday, HRC launched a public action calling on people to send letters to Panetta and headlined: “Sec. Panetta: Stop dragging your heels on equality!”
Hours later, OutServe-SLDN, which is the largest LGBT military group and has been pushing the Pentagon to act on partner benefits issues since the month before DADT repeal took effect, praised Panetta for action on ending the categorical ban on women in combat roles. Executive director Allyson Robinson, however, added, “After nearly two years of unnecessary and unexplained delay, it’s likewise time for Secretary Panetta to acknowledge and affirm the service and sacrifice of the gay and lesbian military families — who may now serve openly, but are still anything but equal — by immediately extending all benefits within his authority under existing law.”
Pentagon leaders, however, don’t appear to be moving on the issue, with Defense Department spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde telling BuzzFeed Thursday afternoon, “[T]he Department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.”
This is roughly the same statement Pentagon officials have been giving since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed formally in September 2011. Of the ongoing benefits review, the Defense Department’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, told a crowd of servicemembers and others gathered to celebrate LGBT pride month at the Pentagon in June 2012, “[T]he process has been comprehensive and time-consuming, but it will get done.”
In recent months, the issue has gained attention since the wife of a female officer stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina was denied membership in the Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses, which was followed by the offer of a “guest membership.” Although a private group, it does meet on the Army installation and the Army concluded that the group could continue to meet there even if it continue to deny the wife, Ashley Broadway, membership — a position backed up by the Pentagon.
In the wake of the Fort Bragg decision, HRC urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin offering military ID cards to same-sex spouses of servicemembers. That request came because the Fort Bragg spouses group had at one point told Broadway that she could not be a member because she would need an ID since the group meets on the Army installation.
President Obama, for his part, referenced the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a model for the transition to including women in combat roles in a statement Thursday.
“Today, by moving to open more military positions—including ground combat units—to women, our armed forces have taken another historic step toward harnessing the talents and skills of all our citizens. … As Commander in Chief, I am absolutely confident that—as with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’—the professionalism of our armed forces will ensure a smooth transition and keep our military the very best in the world,” Obama said.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about whether Obama believes that the “smooth transition” applies to the way issues regarding same-sex spouses of servicemembers and their families are being handled at the Pentagon.
UPDATE: After publication of this article, White House spokesman Shin Inouye responded to BuzzFeed’s request for comment, writing:
The President is proud of the historic repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has strengthened our national security and upholds the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend. No longer do patriotic gay and lesbian Americans have to hide who they love in order to serve the country they love. As you know, the Department of Defense is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the availability of benefits, when legally permissible, to same-sex domestic partners of service members. I would point you to the Department of Defense for further information on that process.
In response to the earlier statement from the Pentagon spokesperson that “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,” BuzzFeed sought further information on where things stood with the review process.
Defense Department spokesperson Leslie Hull-Ryde responded, “I have nothing to add to the statement provided.”