Yesterday, President Obama signed into law legislation that will end Don't Ask, Don't Tell and allow gay and lesbian citizens to serve openly in the Armed Forces.
Watching it was exhilarating.
But our gay men and women in uniform deserve more than the right to serve openly, they deserve the right to serve equally.
Without repeal of the Defense of Marriage act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman under federal law, or the passage of the Domestic Partners and Obligations Act, which extends benefits to partners of gay federal employees, the spouses of gay and lesbian troops are ineligible for military benefits.
In fact, even this week's hallmark civil rights legislation states:
BENEFITS--Nothing in this section, or the amendments made by this section, shall be construed to require the furnishing of benefits in violation of section 7 title 1, United States Code (relating to the definitions of "marriage" and "spouse" and referred to as the "Defense of Marriage Act").
Essentially, we're allowing gay men and women to serve openly, while we continue to openly discriminate against them. How similar to not too long ago when black combat veterans returned home to Jim Crow, segregation, and a seat on the back of a bus. Harry Truman integrated the military in 1947, but it took nearly two decades before Loving v. Virginia ended all race-based legal restrictions on Marriage. (For more on that check out Loving Day.)
It is great that this Army Officer will soon be able to openly embrace her partner on the parade deck when she returns from war.
And that in a culture where integrity and honor are more than a punchline, troops need not continue to live a lie.
But what about their better halves?
Unlike the spouses of straight soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, gay spouses will remain ineligible for death benefits or the extension of citizenship to surviving spouses of those killed. They are also will not be entitled to the same medical benefits or the extension of emergency leave to visit an immediate family member.
And if G-d forbid your partner is killed in combat, are you eligible to be listed as next of kin? Will someone even bother to knock on your door?
Yesterday, after signing the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, President Obama remarked that though gay Americans have fought and served in every war, their service has been obscured and hidden by prejudice and discrimination.
There will never be a full accounting of the heroism demonstrated by gay Americans in service to this country; their service has been obscured in history. It's been lost to prejudices that have waned in our own lifetimes. But at every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.
Now that gay troops will be able to serve openly, I hope we will begin to fully account for their service, sacrifice, and heroism. I hope on the front lines stigmas and stereotypes will be challenged when Marines and soldiers realize the guy who volunteered to enter a house first or stand watch an extra hour or carry an extra ammo can or do one more deployment is gay. And I hope too that as we begin to hear their stories and know of their service that we will finally treat these extraordinary American citizens as equals.
Yesterday was an important first step and milestone, but let's not forget that much work remains.