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Gays In Military: 'Inclusion Without Equality Is Incomplete'

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GAYS IN MILITARY OUTSERVE
Members of OutServe, a network of gay and lesbian military personnel, meet in Las Vegas for their first public conference. | OutServe

LAS VEGAS -- Amid the joy of meeting in public for the first time and with the novelty of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" receding, active-duty military personnel at their first conference here this weekend shifted focus to the rest of their agenda.

"Inclusion without equality is incomplete," said Sue Hyde of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during a session at the inaugural OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit. "The job is not done."

Or, rather, jobs. A survey of 530 members of Outserve, which was until the Sept. 20 repeal of DADT an underground network of gay and lesbian military personnel, rated their most important priorities. Topping the list was pressing the Pentagon for partner benefits and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars recognition of same-sex marriage. OutServe members also cited identifying discriminatory conduct within the ranks and highlighting the positive contributions of gay and lesbian personnel. Last on the list, at least to start, is pushing to change Pentagon rules that still bar transgender people from serving.

Here's a closer look at the to-do list for gays in the military:

Ending disparities in partner and family benefits.

Efforts are under way in Congress to repeal DOMA, although advocates privately concede their prospects remain bleak as long as Republicans control the House.

The Obama administration has said DOMA is unconstitutional, and the Justice Department will no longer defend it in court. But House Republicans have said they will spend taxpayer money to defend the statute, so the issue is expected to be settled in federal court.

Even if DOMA is repealed, gay rights groups also must deal with Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which pertains to the armed forces. It defines a spouse as a person of the opposite sex when it comes to military benefits.

Together the two laws work to bar gay and lesbian couples from many of the military benefits enjoyed by straight couples. Those include everything from commissary shopping privileges to space-available travel on military aircraft to burial in national cemeteries. But the two biggest are health care coverage and housing aid, which together can amount to 40 percent of a service member's total compensation.

OutServe founder Josh Seefried said the first priority is to address that inequality. "There are now two different classes in the military for the first time since before African Americans were integrated into the armed forces [in 1948]," he said. "Commanders will see gay soldiers paid less, not having spousal relocation rights, and that will have effects on unit cohesion."

In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in August, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network urged him to take whatever equality measures he could within the confines of DOMA, including making same-sex married couples eligible for joint duty assignments, family center programs and military family housing.

Increasing protection against discrimination.

Unlike race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability and age, sexual orientation is not part of the Military Equal Opportunity program aimed at eliminating bias against service members. SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said sexual orientation "got lost" in the political bartering over repealing DADT.

Continuing harassment and a lack of redress will leave some uncomfortable about coming out of the closet, Seefried predicted. He noted that, despite more than a decade of gays serving openly in the British military, there is currently not a single openly gay Royal Marine.

Preserving recent wins.

The OutServe conference may be a milestone for gays in the military, but "we already see opponents who would roll back the clock if they could," Sarvis said.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has said he would rather not pass a defense authorization bill than allow military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages, even though the Pentagon has said they may. All Republican presidential candidates except Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman have said that, if elected, they would revisit the repeal of DADT with an eye to reinstating the ban on open homosexuality.

Changing and upgrading past discharges.

Now that being gay and out is no longer a bar to military service, veterans ousted because of their sexual orientation may want to alter their discharge papers to remove information that might be held against them by civilian employers or that contains troubling or outdated notations.

More than 14,500 gay and lesbian service members received honorable discharges under DADT that nonetheless listed "Homosexual Conduct," "Homosexual Admission" or "Homosexual" as the reason for separation. Those words are written on the DD-214 form that many employers ask to see when considering whether to hire a veteran. The forms can out veterans and hurt their job prospects in conservative areas of the country at a time when the economy is already working against them, Sarvis said.

A much larger group of veterans were ousted for being gay before DADT. More than 100,000 service members were given general, "dishonorable" or "undesirable" discharges between World War II and 1993, when the military had a blanket ban on homosexuals. Since the repeal of DADT, a growing number have sought to upgrade or cleanse the characterizations on their separation papers. A few have succeeded, but on a case-by-case basis and only after lengthy and expensive legal appeals.

"This is about restoring some measure of dignity and integrity," Sarvis said, adding that SLDN is in talks with the Pentagon to streamline the process so that the records for discharges based solely on sexual orientation can be changed en masse.

Allowing transgender people to serve.

This is by far the most sensitive issue remaining for the military's LGBT community. Of a dozen workshops Saturday, the session on transgender service was the only one that organizers insisted be off the record for the media.

The repeal of DADT did not cover those who have had genital surgery or identify themselves with the opposite gender. There is no statutory prohibition against transgender military service, but the American Psychiatric Association considers transgender individuals to be suffering from Gender Identity Disorder, which constitutes a medical disqualification from service.

The same association removed homosexuality as a medical disorder in 1973, which toppled a key barrier to military service. It's now revising its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), with a new version due in May 2013. Transgender advocates are pushing to reclassify their condition so that under certain conditions they would be eligible for military service.

The diagnostic label is "a huge barrier and a challenge of great magnitude," said Sarvis, who chose his words carefully in an interview that reflected a level of discomfort about transgender issues that other gays -- including participants at OutServe -- rarely acknowledge outside their community. He noted that a bill to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation is currently stalled in the Senate because it includes transgender people.

Still, according to SLDN's legal director, David McKean, 5 to 10 percent of calls to the group seeking legal advice are from transgender people silently on active duty or considering enlisting. He said there are no statistics on the number currently serving.

McKean said the push to welcome transgender people openly into the military is just beginning and that advocates must first agree on a strategy and education program before they can make their case to the public and the Pentagon.

But there was consensus at OutServe that the issue must be on its agenda.

"We all came to the dance together and we all should leave together, including the Marine Corps Ball," said Danny Ingram, national president of American Veterans for Equal Rights and one of the first gay soldiers to be discharged under DADT. "We cannot let our transgender brothers and sisters down."

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