DOMA Decision: How Gay Marriage Will Benefit the U.S. Military

ByKristen Kavanaugh

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by a vote of 5 to 4. This historic ruling legalizes the committed relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the eyes of the federal government and continues the march forward toward full equality for the members of the LGBT community serving in our nation’s military.

At a time when the military’s short–term and long-term commitments abroad in places such as Syria and Afghanistan are unclear, it is important to maintain troop levels by retaining the best and brightest talent. Until now, legally married LGBT service members had to assess the additional financial and logistical burdens DOMA placed upon their families when making career decisions. Wednesday's ruling makes career planning more practical for legally married LGBT service members by taking the financial burden and logistical nightmare of living under DOMA out of the equation.

The United States gave members of the LGBT community a few reasons to cut their tenure short with the military. In 1993 Congress passed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) which barred LGBT service members from serving openly. Then, in a second blow to the community, they passed DOMA in 1996, which defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman” in the eyes of the federal government. The number of LGBT service members who cut their career short because of the burden of serving under oppressive policies is unclear, but both DADT and DOMA were commonly given as reasons for early voluntary separation. Despite the setbacks, sanctioned discrimination and loss of talent within the ranks, many LGBT service members continued to serve our country through both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

The repeal of DADT in 2011 paved the way for an estimated 66,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual service members to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. DADT did not apply to those service members who consider themselves transgender. DOMA continued to loom over lesbians, gays and bisexuals and excluded their spouses or partners from receiving benefits typically afforded to qualifying dependents. Commanders were forced to treat their married troops differently based on sexual orientation. Although 12 states (Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticuit, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia granted same-sex couples the legal right to marry, the military was forced to disregard same-sex marriages and deny dependent benefits to those who otherwise would qualify.

As one of his final acts in office, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attempted to remedy the perception of inequality by vowing to extend certain benefits to same-sex domestically partnered service members. Those benefits most notably included issuance of military identification cards, access to childcare services, casualty notification, family counseling and relocation assistance. Noticeably absent from that list were major benefits such as healthcare and housing allowances. At the time the Pentagon estimated that 5,600 active duty, 3,400 reserves, 8,000 retirees would apply for the newly expanded benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Those benefits are slated to begin on September 1.

With Wednesday's DOMA ruling, the Supreme Court validated the committed relationships of lesbian, gay and bisexual service members and gave them a financial incentive to remain on Active, Reserve or Guard duty. They granted equal footing by giving access to the myriad of benefits available to married service members. Although all benefits will be available to all qualifying service members, regardless of sexual orientation, implementation will take time. There are logistical steps that the military must take to ensure a smooth implementation. It is unclear how long this process will take, but the Supreme Court ruling signifies the first step.

Striking down DOMA instantly made our military stronger and gave lesbian, gay and bisexual service members a reason to continue to commit to an organization that is committed to them.  With looming operations globally, the military must be able to attract and retain top talent. One of the best ways to do that is to take care of military families. When service members can focus on accomplishing their mission and feel comfortable that their families’ needs are met at home, we can all sleep a little easier at night.

Kristen Kavanaugh, a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council