In the year since Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed new members of the military community -- the partners and spouses of gay servicemembers -- have slowly begun to emerge. And rather than finding the rejection that they feared from the military community, many have found acceptance.
"In the absence of information (on us) you get these hysterical stereotypes" from military community members, said Tracey Hepner, a gay military spouse and a co-founder of the LGBT military family organization Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC). "But when we step out you see we aren't that special."
Hepner, who is legally married to the military's first openly gay general, Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, said her experience with fellow members of the military family community has been entirely positive. Even with the publicity surrounding Smith's August promotion, the couple has experienced nothing but support from the military, including a public affairs officer specifically assigned to make sure their time in the spotlight runs smoothly, Hepner said.
"The support that we have received has been absolutely phenomenal," she said. "Their message to us is that ‘we want this to be a positive experience for your family." The prohibition against openly gay servicemembers, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was lifted Sept. 20, 2011. Since that time gay military family members have slowly started integrating into military life.
The Defense of Marriage Act bars any federal entity – including the military – from recognizing same sex partners as legally married and blocks them from accessing benefits reserved for married servicemembers. The Obama Administration this summer asked the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the measure. If repealed, gay military family members would have unlimited access to military benefits.
Yet despite the reception towards Hepner from the Pentagon, many gay servicemembers and their families are still hesitant to come out to their units for fear of being ostracized.
After Dee Graham-Dunbar and CW2 Tania Dunbar married in D.C. in May, 2011, Graham-Dunbar joined her new wife at their off-post apartment about an hour from Fort Stewart. Because DADT was still in effect, the couple was forced to live in hiding. And even when the measure was repealed and they moved closer to post, Dunbar was still hesitant to come out to her command.
So the pair was surprised by the response they received when Dunbar finally did tell her commander that she is gay. Not only was her wife's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Cunningham, completely accepting, Graham-Dunbar said, but the CO's wife, Rose Cunningham, immediately invited Graham-Dunbar to be a part of the unit's coffee group, traditionally reserved for officer's wives. Not long after joining the coffee group she was also asked to lead the unit's Family Readiness Group.
But since the couple's recent PCS to Fort Bragg, Graham-Dunbar has found herself back in hiding, unable to access post and not recognized by her wife's command, which has not even been told that she exists. Dunbar, she said, is still waiting for the perfect time to come out to her new unit.
"It's not about the benefits – it's being able to be a part of family activities. These are the things that other people get tired of, but they mean the world to me," she said. "I'm not here crying ‘Oh my God, I need to get on post,' but it is disappointing to not be to be part of the military family the way I was."
Private organizations are working to fill that gap. Even without access to benefits, Brunstad said, gay families are able to feel like they are part of the military family thanks to the support from those groups. Both the National Military Family Association and Blue Star Families, for example, have stepped up to extend support to those families using groups like MPFC as a conduit, she said.
Officials with both organizations said they have focused on treating the gay families exactly as they would any other military family, working to connect them with resources and informing them of any military benefits for which their legally adopted children may qualify.
"A lot of these folks are accessing military benefits for children for the very first time, and that's great," said Joyce Raezer, director of the National Military Family Association. Many LGBT families have children legally adopted by both partners, she said. But because they were keeping their families and partners a secret prior to DADT, they may not have registered their children with the military.
Her organization has focused not only on sharing benefits information with gay families, but pushing the Defense Department to recognize what benefits they can share with gay families while not violating DOMA.
"Information is a powerful thing," Raezer said. "But it's also about getting information to some of the folks that have authority to provide support to these members of their community."
The organization Blue Star Families has worked to make sure gay military families are treated equally within their private programs, such as the Blue Star Museums program that allows military families free access to certain museums across the country, said Stephanie Himel-Nelson, a spokesman for the organization. "Military families all look different, and we want to be sure any military member, no matter what their sex orientation, is able to access the resources they need," she said. "A military family is a military family."
Officials with both organizations said they have not started any special programs for families since the DADT repeal. But Hepner said that is exactly the way it should be – she wants gay military families to not be treated as a gay family who happens to be in the military, but instead be treated as a military family who happens to be gay.