The struggles of a gay military family
The United States became the 23rd of 26 NATO countries to allow military service by openly gay people last week. An estimated 66,000 lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are serving in the U.S. military, according to a recent study by UCLA’s Williams Institute. Many are still afraid to come out. I visited a gay military family to hear the story they are now able to tell.
By Lucy Nicholson
A week ago, Luz Bautista, 30, and her fiancée Alejandra Schwartz, 24, both Navy petty officers, were celebrating the end of the U.S. ban on openly gay service members.
This week, they’re being forced to live apart.
Bautista headed to Illinois Monday, away from Schwartz and their daughter Destiny, 6, for a three year posting that could be extended.
“The emotional toll. You can’t even describe it. It has been tearing us apart for the last couple of months,” said Bautista.
While the repeal of the 18-year-old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy marked a major advancement for gay rights, it doesn’t address many of the practical effects it has for gay troops, and exposes the challenges remaining for the military to accommodate couples.
Bautista, a petty officer 1st Class and Schwartz, petty officer 2nd class, who has served as an Arabic translator in Iraq, are good examples of the inequities that exist for gay service members.
Same-sex couples do not have the same spousal benefits or protection from being stationed separately that heterosexual married couples in the military have.
Coming out to her colleagues — and on national television — last week was one of Bautista’s proudest moments. While it ended an era of having to live in secrecy, it does little to change the situation she’s in with a committed partner who is also committed to a Navy career.
The timing of the change almost seems cruel in light of how difficult her life is getting. In addition to having to leave Schwartz, she’s pregnant with a second child.
“It’s going to be difficult for me,” Bautista said. “I’m going to be by myself for the first time in 12 years… I’m scared.”
Even if the couple could travel to one of the few U.S. states where gay marriage is legal, the marriage would not be acknowledged by the military or by the state of California. Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the term “spouse” only refers to opposite-sex married couples.
“As a result, a service member in a same-sex relationship with another service member is not eligible for co-location consideration,” according to Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. “Gay, lesbian or bisexual service members in a committed same-sex relationship like their unmarried heterosexual counterparts can make individual hardship-based requests for accommodation in assignment.”
Bautista did make a hardship claim, but at the time she couldn’t reveal that she had a partner. Instead, she relied on the other struggles she faced: as a pregnant, single mom, caring for her own disabled mother while raising a child and paying a mortgage and bills on a house she owns in San Diego.
It was not hardship enough.
“Unfortunately I got orders right before the repeal happened,” Bautista explained. “So I couldn’t say, I’m gay and I have a fiancée, can you guys help me out please? But I think that even if I had said it, it still wouldn’t have mattered because the rules are the rules. This marriage is not real to the Navy.”
Her family tells her she should leave the Navy. But she and both children would lose their health insurance, unable to be considered as Schwartz’s family dependents.
Six-year-old Destiny knows her mother is about to leave, and follows her everywhere. She has an infectious giggle and a wobbly front tooth. She reads in English and Spanish, and speaks a few words of Arabic that Schwartz has taught her.
“What am I going to do if I get out? I love the military. I want to keep serving. I want to help out this country. I want to still go on deployments, and I want to go back on a ship,” Bautista said.
If some changes don’t happen in the next three years, she and Schwartz could even be deployed on a ship at the same time — away from their children.
“Her shore duty ends in 2013, and she goes to a ship,” Bautista said. “Because it’s a rotation, you go from shore to sea. I don’t get transferred till 2014 to a ship, so by that time, both of us are going to be on a ship, and we’re going to have two kids.”
“If we had spouse co-location, and the Navy recognized it legally, that wouldn’t happen. It’s one person on ship, and one person on shore because one person always has to take care of the kids. We’re not getting any of that because we’re not recognized as married.”
Bautista sees the next three years as a difficult test.
She and Schwartz plan to trade three-month stints with their baby. “I think it’s ridiculous to have to do that. But I’m thinking more of the bonding that has to be done. Alejandra’s never had a baby before, so she’s more excited about this baby than I am.”
Bautista, who works as a counselor, has no idea when it may be possible for them to live together as a family again.
“I think I’m doing a very good job in the military, helping out sailors. That’s my job. That’s what I do,” she said. “And I think it’s time that somebody helped me out, because I’ve been helping out everybody. So why can’t the favor be returned?”