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The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell has left unfinished work

The Department of Defense begins to address questions affecting LGBT military personnel

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For most Americans not of a right-wing conservative bent, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — which officially took effect Sept. 20 — was the end of an absurd, embarrassing episode in the country's history.

But for some military activists close to the struggle, the policy change has marked the beginning of an effort to further define and expand the victory for gay soldiers and veterans.

For instance, explains Danny Ingram, president of the Atlanta-based American Veterans for Equal Rights, while the death of Don't Ask, Don't Tell means that gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military, it hasn't opened the door for their partners to enjoy any of the benefits long afforded to military spouses, including base housing, education for the partner's children or health care.

"Right now, the Defense of Marriage Act prevents the federal recognition of same-sex marriage, so it has to be repealed before any spousal benefits can be granted to partners of gay personnel," says Ingram, who was one of the first gay men kicked out of the Army shortly after Don't Ask, Don't Tell was passed in 1993.

The Department of Defense has just begun to look at some of the thornier questions raised by the demise of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. If, say, a gay soldier is killed in combat, does the Army contact his partner first, or the next of kin? Who gets the remains? Ingram says the military doesn't yet know how much discretion it has in making these decisions, short of the repeal of DOMA. (Which, by the way, was passed by Congress in 1996, having been sponsored by then-Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who has since lobbied for its repeal.)

Ingram says he heard that a high-ranking Navy chaplain had given his staff permission to perform same-sex marriages — in the five states in which it's legal — but that the Navy had rescinded that approval until it could research the legal issues.

Then there are the more mundane policy quirks that still negatively affect gay servicemen and -women. Under Department of Defense rules, members of protected minorities are allowed to go to the Equal Employment Office to report discrimination, Ingram says. But that list does not currently include gays and lesbians, meaning they must first speak to their commanding officer — who may be the one doing the discriminating. If that doesn't work out, the only recourse is to file a grievance with the Judge Advocate General's office.

"That's a huge step that can affect a soldier's career," Ingram explains. "Right now, you can see an EEO officer if you're a Pacific Islander, but not if you're gay."

Similarly, the Veteran's Administration has advocacy personnel dedicated to ensuring that minority veterans are not denied services for which they're eligible. But, again, there's no LGBT division.

Those problems might seem like easy lifts compared to the changes pursued by Monica Helms. A Navy vet who served on submarines in the '70s, Helms transitioned from man to woman in the late '90s. As head of the Atlanta-based Transgendered American Veterans Association, Helms lobbies for transgendered persons to be able to serve openly in the military, a policy that was unaffected by the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

As you might expect, Helms' cause has met with resistance and derision in some quarters.

"People who've never served in the military are running around saying guys will be wearing heels into battle," she says.

Helms uses a broader definition of "transgendered" than most folks might be accustomed to, including not simply people who've undergone sex-reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, but anyone who self-identifies as the other gender.

"If a male soldier is presenting as a woman off-duty and off-base, and someone turns him in, he can be kicked out of the service," Helms explains.

In fact, even gender confusion can lead to a soldier's ouster.

"People in this situation often need to reach out and talk to someone about their feelings," Helms says. "But there's no such thing as doctor-patient confidentiality in the military. Even chaplains are under orders to report unusual behavior or thoughts, so it can actually hurt a soldier."

Although there's no law against transgendered people serving in the armed forces, Ingram believes the military can't change its policy until the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association is revised so that it no longer classifies gender dysmorphia — the belief that one was born the wrong gender — as a mental illness. Otherwise, he says, an act of Congress could lift the ban.

But Helms points out that eight other nations, including close allies Canada, Australia and Israel, have bucked that DSM and says the U.S. should follow suit. And there are absurd ironies that bolster her argument: Post-operative transsexuals cannot serve in the military, but they must still register with the Selective Service System.

As with Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a change in military policy on transgendered personnel would bring with it a load of new questions. Since women are not officially allowed in combat, what about a male-to-female transsexual? Or a female-to-male transsexual? At what point in a soldier's transition would he/she be allowed to wear the other sex's uniform? How far is Helms prepared to push for transgender rights?

"The feeling now is not to compromise or give ground on anything," she says. "I'm not willing to say anything's off the table until we get to the table."

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