**This article first appeared in Bent Alaska, the “Alaska GLBT News and Events” blog**
Last month, I was asked by Servicemembers United if I would be interested in meeting with the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group to discuss GLTBQ partner issues in relation to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Despite the fact that I have devoted considerable time and energy to the repeal effort, I almost said no.
Any partner of a LGBTQ servicemember learns to deal with a heavy dose of invisibility and isolation. Because of DADT, we cannot participate in any manner of our servicemember’s regular military life. We can’t be known to any of our partner’s military friends or colleagues. We can’t be seen as a couple anywhere near base, or anywhere we might bump into fellow servicemembers.
When our soldier deploys, we can’t be there with the rest of the families to say our goodbyes. We then have to censor all of our communications while they are at war – trying so hard to coach them through that hell while having to sound like just a “friend”; even inventing crazy code words to say “I love you.” And when they finally come home, we have to hide off in a corner somewhere so that no one will witness our tearful reunion.
While our servicemember is deployed, we are not on the military’s contact list should something bad happen. None of the base’s myriad support services apply to us. More often than not, we cannot even find support with other LGBTQ partners, because we have little means of meeting up with each other. We live with the constant fear that one little slip-up can ruin the career of the person we love, and that their dreams of service will end in public humiliation and disgrace. It was that fear that almost prevented me from going to the Pentagon.
But, in the end, I was MORE afraid that this might be our one and only chance to offer our perspective to the CRWG – our only chance share the impact of DADT on LGBTQ families. So, on September 16th, 12 of us nervously boarded a bus and headed to the Pentagon. (Meeting us there were three partners from SLDN, accompanied by two of their lawyers. A third organization had been invited to attend, but declined to send representation.)
Our group of partners had met beforehand to plot out a unified message (the other groups were invited, but did not attend.) We had decided that the most important thing to us all was simply to lift the constant burden of fear of discovery and discharge from the shoulders of our servicemembers. As the loving partners of some very dedicated soldiers, our utmost concern was for their immediate welfare – we were not doing this solely for a ‘benefits grab.’
And indeed, when it was our turn to speak, that is exactly how we started the meeting. But we then stressed that, if our partners were present, they would tell the Pentagon that they want their families to be taken care of. (Things seemed a bit tense at first, as I’m not sure they didn’t think we might start out by jumping up on the table while chanting slogans and clutching protest signs.)
One woman in our group represented 11 other GLBTQ partners who were to afraid to attend the meeting. She stated how those eleven families represented a combined 324 years of military service (and counting), had 12 children and 7 grandchildren – many of who had themselves enlisted in the military. She talked about how their kids had to lie in school, so that their parents wouldn’t be outed.
We wondered out loud how many straight servicemembers would reenlist if their families were denied all of the benefits they currently enjoy. We asked the Working Group to walk a mile in our shoes, and imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to their families every morning and then have to pretend that they didn’t exist for the rest of the day (even while listening to every last detail of the lives of your fellow servicemembers.) We told them that GLBTQ military families go through every one of the rigors associated with PCSs, deployments, etc., but without any of the support afforded to straight families; we’ve learned to do it all on our own.
All in all, the meeting lasted 110 minutes, and then continued for another 15 minutes in smaller groups as we prepared to leave. Our partners were thanked for their service, and we were officially thanked for our role in supporting them (the shock of hearing this spoken at the Pentagon still hasn’t worn off…) I feel we were able to have a substantive discussion of the issues affecting LGBTQ servicemembers and their families, and that we gave the Working Group a new perspective to consider. Rest assured that we DO have allies at the Pentagon, yet I am unsure how that will translate into immediate relief for us.