12/31/2010 04:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Separate but Equal: Gen. Conway's Housing Project and the Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell

Last week, General James Conway, the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps said that he "would not ask our Marines to live with someone that is homosexual" if the current law of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) is repealed and gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly in the Marine Corps. (audio of Gen. Conway's comments) Gen. Conway added that new separate quarters containing single rooms would need to be constructed to avoid disruption, citing that it would be the end of the Marine Corps' unique policy of housing two Marines to a room.

His comments are illustrative of a push to create a second-class status for gay troops once DADT is repealed. Gen. Conway is part of an increasingly vocal opposition's reluctant acceptance of the fact that a repeal of the discriminatory law is inevitable. Seeing the writing on the wall, opponents of repeal are now laying the foundation for a separate-but-equal-esque arrangement like that alluded to by Gen. Conway.

No doubt, those opposed to the repeal of DADT will use the unique character of the military to justify their recalcitrance, just as Gen. Conway did by arguing that unit cohesion would be disrupted because of shared housing. At the same time, opponents of repeal will make excuses which tend to undermine some of the fundamental strengths of our armed services.

Gen. Conway's statement ignores an important reality - heterosexual and homosexual Marines are already sharing quarters, and in many instances are aware of each others' sexual orientation. Further, his statement implicitly assumes that the Marine Corps, despite its long history of adaptation and success, would somehow not be able to overcome whatever tensions might exist between current housing polices and implementing DADT's repeal.

Apart from the apparent problems with Gen. Conway's statement, his comments strike at an even more troubling reality - inequality resulting from a service member's sexual orientation will remain despite DADT's repeal. The only question which remains is, for how long and to what extent will these inequalities persist?

The impending repeal of DADT is a promising step forward. When enacted into law, the Military Readiness and Enhancement Act will repeal DADT by replacing it with a non-discrimination policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the military will still be required by law to treat homosexual service members differently from their heterosexual colleagues. DADT's repeal will mean that gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military in the exact same manner as heterosexuals. But what it will not mean is that all of the benefits received by heterosexuals will be received by homosexuals.

Standing in the way of equality is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages. Gay and lesbian service members legally married in one of the six U.S. jurisdictions having legalized same-sex marriage, will not have their marriages recognized by the military, and consequently will not receive the same benefits for their spouses as do heterosexual service members.

A recent report from The Center for American Progress provides a how-to for the military's implementation of DADT's repeal. The report wisely recommends that the military follow the approach taken by State Department, which last year, recognized same sex domestic partnerships and extended to them previously unavailable benefits. While the State Department's approach does create a benefits program for employees in same sex domestic partnerships, there are still differences from those benefits offered to married heterosexual employees- most notably the availability of health insurance and retirement benefits. The reality is that until DOMA is repealed, the approach taken by the State Department will only be an intermediate fix. It will maintain a separate and unequal benefits structure based on sexual orientation.

President Obama and many members of Congress have expressed strong opposition to DOMA, and have suggested that it too needs to be repealed. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) along with 108 co-sponsors, have introduced legislation to do just that. The Respect for Marriage Act, if enacted into law, would require the Federal government to recognize same sex marriages. Recognition would mean that married same sex couples would be eligible to receive over 1000 Federal benefits currently unavailable to them - including access to health care and retirement benefits. Maybe our political leaders will, sooner rather than later, act to fix the disjointed policies that are the unfortunate result of half stepping toward progress.

It is worth noting that the current battle to repeal DOMA is also being fought out in the courts (though their final judgment on these lawsuits is at best a couple of years away.

What does the repeal of DADT mean for the Marine Corps? It means that the Marine Corps will be stronger overall, units will be more cohesive, and readiness will be higher. As for Gen. Conway, given that this will likely be his last billet before retiring, it will be interesting which legacy he chooses to leave to our beloved Marine Corps - one that is reflective of his own animus and outmoded way of thinking, or, one that embodies the innovative and flexible spirit of the Marine Corps and also reflects the tolerance of a new generation of Marines. Regardless of what Gen. Conway decides, I have every confidence that our Marine Corps will adapt without jeopardizing the mission, and will continue to be America's preeminent fighting force as it has proven itself to be for 235 years.

Semper fidelis.