As Military Ban Persists, So Does Strain On Gays

President Obama held a historic reception for more than 250 leaders from the gay and lesbian community on Monday at the White House. At the reception he told his audience that he hopes they will judge him not by the promises he has made, but by the promises his administration keeps.

"I suspect that by the time this administration is over," Obama said, "you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

Among other things, he pledged to push for change to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military provided they keep their sexual orientation secret.

Obama's pledge, however, did not help Lt. Daniel Choi of the New York National Guard Unit, who the next day became the latest service member to face discharge under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

A Life In Secret

The deployment of troops is often marked by patriotic and emotional ceremonies. There are military bands and speeches, and for the families there are hugs, kisses, tears and public displays of emotion — unless the person shipping out is gay.

"I can't be there when he deploys to Iraq," said military spouse Ben Cartwright. "I can't be on the sidelines waving and crying and giving him a hug like everyone else can. If I do go to those things, I have to stand behind a tree and hide."

Cartwright's partner is a Navy corpsman. They live together in San Diego, near the Camp Pendleton base. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy requires him to hide their relationship.

"I don't know how many of us there are out there. But our lives are affected also. And all we're trying to do is love our partners," said Cartwright.

He says that under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he is basically invisible to the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact, he and his partner go to great lengths to stay hidden, even, in his words, "de-gaying the house."

"We de-gayed it so when his military friends came into the house to pick him up, they wouldn't see any trace of me," said Cartwright. "We took my college diploma off the wall — everything."

Barred From Benefits

Military service is a sacrifice for any family. In exchange, service members get a wide array of benefits, from store discounts on military bases to help paying for education. But those perks are for the most part not available to gay or lesbian partners, because only married husbands and wives can get the military ID card needed to access them.

Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, says that is true even for same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is now legal. She notes that spouses without an ID card are basically "nonentities" in the military's eyes.

"If that service member, for example, is injured or killed, that partner would not be notified about the injury or the death," she said.

That's what happened to Jeff Carnes while he was stationed with the Army in Iraq. His partner at the time was in the Air Force in Afghanistan, where he was injured by shrapnel.

A typical military spouse would be notified of the injury immediately, and the couple would be reunited at a military hospital at the government's expense. However, since this relationship was invisible to the military, Carnes wasn't informed of the injury until weeks later, when his partner told him.

"I, needless to say, had a lot of emotional issues as a result of this," said Carnes. "It was the longest month of my life until I was able to see him again."

Since Carnes and his partner could not acknowledge their relationship, they also could not get the kind of mental health counseling other military spouses are entitled to.

"You really couldn't get therapy," said Carnes. "As a result, we ended our relationship."

According to Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith, psychologists are not required to report it to the chain of command when a patient admits his or her sexual orientation. But a number of service members dispute that, including Lt. Daniel Choi.

Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran, came out publicly to protest Don't Ask, Don't Tell. This week, he was recommended for discharge from the New York National Guard.

Choi said he went to great lengths to stay in the closet, even considering a fake marriage.

"But then I imagined, 'Well, what if I come back in a coffin?'" he said. "And there's a flag-draped coffin, and that flag is folded up and given to my spouse? What if, at that ceremony, it's given to somebody that I don't even love?"

More Than 1,000 Signatures

Earlier this year, more than 1,000 retired military officers signed a letter urging Congress and the president to leave the current ban in place. Elaine Donnelly, president of the independent nonprofit Center for Military Readiness, says the ban on gay service members is appropriate, given military culture.

"People live in forced intimacy," she said. "It's all about good order and discipline. And so the ban on homosexual conduct was written into law in 1993."

Despite these obstacles, gay and lesbian Americans continue serving in the military.

"He believes he's doing a really good thing for his country, and I believe he is doing a good thing for his country. And he feels that sacrifice is worth it," said Cartwright.

Nevertheless, Cartwright sometimes wonders if it's worth it to him.

A 'More Humane' Policy

At the Monday reception, Obama acknowledged the disappointment of many in his audience about the pace of change for gay servicemen and women, and regret for those who had been discharged.

"What I hope is that these cases underscore the urgency of reversing this policy — not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it is essential for our national security," he said.

Part of the delay can be attributed to the president's desire for a legislative solution, while members of Congress indicate that they are waiting for the Obama administration to take the lead.

In the meantime, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was looking for ways to make the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, in his words, "more humane."

Scott Shafer reports for KQED in Northern California

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