OTHER VOICES

Equalizing benefits for same-sex couples

Tracey Hepner, the wife of U.S. Army General Tammy Smith who is the first openly gay flag officer in the U.S. military, holds a U.S. flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court's ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 in this file photo taken June 26, 2013.  The Pentagon on Wednesday announced its plan to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed military personnel and civilian employees, in response to the Supreme Court ruling in June forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are legal.
JONATHAN ERNST | REUTERS
Tracey Hepner, the wife of U.S. Army General Tammy Smith who is the first openly gay flag officer in the U.S. military, holds a U.S. flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court's ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 in this file photo taken June 26, 2013. The Pentagon on Wednesday announced its plan to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of uniformed military personnel and civilian employees, in response to the Supreme Court ruling in June forcing the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are legal.
Posted Aug. 20, 2013, at 11:16 a.m.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it would extend federal benefits to military personnel in same-sex marriages. Because these benefits are only available to those in legal marriages, the Defense Department also announced that it would grant leave to military couples who aren’t stationed in the District or one of the 13 states that currently recognize same-sex marriage. That way, personnel can travel to jurisdictions where they can be legally married and claim the benefits they rightfully deserve.

For a federal department that lived under the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” standard for gay personnel until two years ago, this generous extension of military health benefits, housing allowances and entitlements to all personnel by Sept. 3 represents a welcome, if mind-boggling, reversal. After the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act earlier this summer, it’s good to see such a vital department act so quickly and efficiently to foster equality within its ranks. The sacrifices members of the military make on a daily basis are virtually impossible to overstate, and it’s about time all of their families are treated fairly and equally.

The Pentagon’s decision came just days after the Social Security administration announced that it’s now processing retirement spousal claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits when they’re due, helping to ensure that all Americans, gay or straight, are treated with “the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Earlier this summer, the Federal Election Commission also standardized election and campaign finance rules for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples. The FEC’s panel of five current commissioners held unanimously that gay couples can now make single campaign donations from joint accounts, even if the money in those accounts was earned by only one spouse. Along the same lines, now that same-sex spouses are rightly considered family members, the panel ruled that legally married homosexual candidates for federal offices can use the assets they jointly own with their spouses in the service of their campaigns. Both of these have long been the case for heterosexual couples, and it’s good to see the rules of the game apply equally to all its players, donors and contenders alike.

Of course, each of these advancements, essential as they are, isn’t the end of the story. There are still 37 states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, and in many cases, state laws impede equal protection for married homosexuals seeking to claim federal benefits. FEC updates to election law, for example, won’t supersede local laws that prohibit couples from participating equally in state elections. A same-sex couple living in, say, Illinois, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, would thus be able to donate from a joint account as a married couple to a presidential campaign but not to a gubernatorial one. Similar contradictions and inconsistencies can still prohibit LGBT military families from claiming benefits in all 50 states, which, after all these years, should no longer be the case.

For now, however, these departments have done everything in their power to level the playing field. There’s no excuse for other parts of the federal government to drag their feet any longer.

The Washington Post (Aug. 18)

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