Yesterday, via OutServe Magazine, I reported on the biggest change to military HIV policy since mass testing went into effect in 1980. In a nutshell, the U.S. Navy now allows HIV-positive Sailors and Marines to receive overseas assignments. Before this year, all HIV-positive members of the military were prohibited from stepping foot on foreign soil, even in times of peace and in non-combat zones.
You can read more about the significance of the policy update here, but service members and veterans know that assignments have a profound impact on career trajectories, and that was reason enough for the U.S. Navy to act. The memorandum states that the change intends to "reflect current knowledge" of HIV and points to the overseas ban as having "made this subset of personnel less competitive in achieving career milestones or warrior qualifications."
That is some really progressive language. The Navy has taken steps not only to retain HIV-positive personnel but to ensure that they have a fair shot at promotion. But the memorandum was released in August. Why hasn't anyone heard of it? (It was complete luck that I stumbled upon it myself.) The Armed Forces, long criticized as a bastion of homophobia, could certainly use the gay blessing.
Apparently, the military does things a little differently. Staying true to its nonpartisan roots, or at least attempting not to appear overtly pro-LGBT, the military has actually developed quite a portfolio of not-well-publicized socially progressive initiatives under the Obama administration. Here are a few other things they've been up to under the gaydar:
1) Transgender health care for veterans: As my colleagues at the Center for American Progress point out, the Department for Veterans Affairs has taken significant steps toward ensuring proper health care for gay and transgender veterans. In addition to a nondiscrimination policy for gay and transgender patients, a directive issued by the Veterans Health Administration in 2011 enumerated a number of services the VA will offer for transitioning vets, including mental health care, hormone therapy and pre- and post-surgical care.
2) Military partner benefits: Remember the massive study that the military conducted to evaluate the impacts of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), the one in which an appointed group of Pentagon personnel concluded that DADT repeal wouldn't undermine unit cohesion or military readiness? That same study also laid the groundwork for military benefits for same-sex military couples, admitting that no other issue area "consume[d] as much time and effort" in the report. Considering that the immediately relevant topic was DADT, the depth of the policy recommendations is impressive. Though the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents gay spouses from receiving the same benefits as straight couples, such as health care, housing allowances and relocation assistance, the study recommended that the Pentagon access the other benefits that could be offered to same-sex spouses not contingent upon DOMA repeal. They fully recognize that the Department of Defense possesses the "regulatory flexibility" to define eligible beneficiaries, and recommend that they do so after the implementation of DADT repeal.
3) Gender equality: There's no two ways about it: The military is preparing to repeal its ban on women in combat. The Navy has placed women on submarines. The Army has opened up six combat specialties. The Marine Corps have admitted women to the infantry officer course. Similar to what motivated the new HIV policies, barriers to promotion appear to be the impetus here. As the policy stands now, women can be attached to combat units but not assigned them, which puts servicewomen in the same danger as combat servicemen but essentially strips servicewomen from the institutional recognition that comes with the job. Additionally, Secretary Panetta has called the military's handling of sexual assault cases an outrage and has raised the level of command attention that must be paid to each report. Unfortunately, such action barely scratches the surface of the problem.
The military isn't done, obviously. The continuation and the success of these initiatives requires that the country as a whole move forward on LGBT issues, and the military will rightfully be expected to mirror these changes. But as much as the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs are berated as inefficient and bureaucratic (they are), real people who care about real change exist within those walls. Not all the advocates come from the outside.