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Military Partners Meet
With Pentagon Officials

by  Ashalen Sims

When you're used to hiding your existence from anyone who looks remotely military, it takes a leap of faith to walk into the Pentagon and give them your real name.

But that's just what I and 19 other queer military partners did on Thursday, September 16th. We were there to meet with senior officials of the Comprehensive Review Working Group (CRWG), which is at this moment devising a plan for implementing repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We were all incredibly nervous – not just because we feared for our partners, but because we were afraid they wouldn’t take us seriously. We knew this was our one chance to affect military policy, and we didn’t want to waste that chance.

I don’t think we wasted it. Like others, I am crushed by the recent defeat in the Senate. But I feel optimistic about general attitudes towards queers in the military. Before this month, the Pentagon had never acknowledged the existence of queer military partners. Now, they not only met with us, but they took us seriously. For ninety minutes that afternoon, Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson and Major General Gregory Biscone took notes while we discussed our concerns.

The meeting was facilitated by Servicemembers United, and an additional group showed up with Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network. In total, 20 partners were present. The statistics: men slightly outnumbered the women. Sixteen partners were white. Most of us were in serious, long-term relationships with servicemembers for whom the military was a career. Three were legally married. At least two had partners who had been investigated for "homosexual conduct". And three partners with prior service said they would reenlist if Don't Ask, Don't Tell were repealed.

The Ability To Live Openly

At the beginning of the meeting, Johnson assured us that he didn’t want to know our last names, or the identities of our partners. He just wanted to hear what we had to say.

So we told him. The meeting was not a voicing of grievances. All of us had plenty, but we put those aside because we knew this was our one chance to be visible. The Pentagon had reached out to us – and we wanted to give them as much useful information as we could.

We had discussed our strategy beforehand, and we all agreed: we didn’t want them to think we only want a slice of the military benefits pie. Things like the commissary and health care are nice, and we would eventually like access to those things as a matter of principle, but at this time they are not our main concern. We have learned over the years to get by without them. Our immediate needs are much more basic than that.

We just want to be able to live openly.

For most queer servicemembers and their partners, this would solve a host of problems. Some of these problems are minor, such as not being able to hold hands when we walk down the street in a military town. Others are serious, such as not being able to adopt children because the adoption papers would show up in military records. But even the smallest inconveniences can strain a relationship.

One partner said she was five months pregnant with her wife's twins. Her wife will be in Iraq when the babies are born. The partner has no support-- medical or emotional. She will have to give birth in a civilian hospital, away from her partner.

Another woman said she was representing 11 queer military families. Out of those families, she was the only partner who had dared come to the Pentagon. The others had weighed their options and decided they had too much to lose. 

These families have a total of 12 children and seven grandchildren. Several of the children have joined the service. Counting the children's deployments, the families have 29 deployments between them. Their combined service totals 324 years. One of the parents is at this moment deployed to Afghanistan--with her son.

These families should be teaching their children and grandchildren to be proud of their parents' military service. Instead, they are teaching them to lie at school. This hurts them every day. But they have no other choice.

Every Day, We Live In Fear

Straight servicemembers seem to think that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is only an inconvenience sometimes. That's not true. Even on the most mundane of days, our lives are overshadowed by this law from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep.

Fear was the most common theme in the meeting. Everyone had a story to tell, but I still don’t think we truly got it across to the officials how deeply this fear penetrates our lives.

Personally, whenever I go out of the house with my partner in the place she's stationed, I am afraid. Afraid someone will see her with me, a strange woman, and report it. I am afraid to touch her, afraid to smile at her, afraid to even look at her when there are soldiers in uniform around. When we get home, I am exhausted. It gets so that we'd rather just stay inside, even when the weather is beautiful.

Even when I'm not with my partner, I'm afraid. I worry that an enemy will out her just to spite her. I worry that she’ll slip up and mention my name. I constantly peruse her profile on social networking sites, making sure no one has posted anything that will bring suspicion on her.

I worry about her mental health, too. She's been openly gay since she was a teenager. She identifies strongly with the queer community. In the military, the members of that community can't even acknowledge each other. What long-term psychological effects is that going to have on her? How will that affect the way she leads her soldiers?

I listen to her talking about how badly she wishes she could open up to her unit, and my heart breaks.

A Successful Discussion

The fact that the Pentagon decided to meet with us tells me they acknowledge that their current policy is not working. It also tells me they realize that their goal of military readiness is not in opposition with our goal of living openly.

I'm far more optimistic about the military's attitude on this issue than I was before this meeting. We gay partners showed up because we would take any risk to make a better life for our partners. Our families may look different from most military families, but the glue holding them together -- by which I mean love -- is the same. The officials asked us: "If Don't Ask, Don't Tell were repealed tomorrow, what would you do differently?"

Our answer: nothing. There's not going to be a pride parade on the White House lawn. We're not going to wear sequined uniforms. The fear about queers in the military is based on stereotypes that simply aren't true. We would live just the same as we have been for seventeen years -- except without fear, as part of the military family.

No one can doubt our partners' dedication to the military. Every one of them joined up knowing they would be discriminated against, and that the people they loved best would have no resources to acclimate to a military lifestyle. They joined a service that has made it abundantly clear over the years that they are not welcome. Why? Because their sense of patriotism overrode their sense of comfort.

When I got home that night, my partner thanked me for going to the meeting. I was glad I had had the chance to speak for her.

But I look forward to the day when she can speak for herself.

   2010 Gay Military Signal