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Rhetoric Meets Reality for Married Gay Veterans

A couple purely rhetorical statements have recently achieved the status of “bipartisan consensus.” “ISIS is barbaric” is one. “Returning veterans deserve our best treatment” is another. Unfortunately, these truisms are too vague to suggest any particular course of action—which, of course, is the intended function of vague truisms.

So when House Republicans responding to the recent Veterans Administration crises say that they want to do “everything in their power” to support our fighting men and women, you have to wonder why they voted down an amendment to the latest VA Bill that would require all VA facilities—in every state—to recognize the legal rights of married gay couples. It’s a vote that cuts through the rhetorical posturing and uncovers the priorities behind conservative rhetoric. Simply put, the amendment’s opponents would rather defend their obsolete notions of marriage than improve the lives of veterans.

The committee vote on September 10 landed thirteen to twelve, almost entirely along party lines. (The lone Republican dissent came from representative Jon Runyan of New Jersey.) Dina Titus, the Nevada Democrat who proposed the legislation, said, “How many times have we talked about veterans deserving our support, being heroic, and getting the benefits they deserve? We now have a duty to act.” The legislation that Titus proposed is a response to section 103(c) of Title 38 of U.S. Code, which is a code governing VA benefits that looks to the state of celebration in determining whether or not a couple is considered married.

With a patchwork of legal definitions of marriage developing across the country, and with many members of the military assigned to duty stations on bases in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, a legal as well as a moral imbalance has developed. As Chris Johnson wrote in the Washington Blade: “Although the administration has developed a workaround for some benefits, it still won’t afford important benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation of disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans and many survivor benefits for widows.”

Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas, gave one of the more incisive responses to the death of the amendment, saying, “Take yourself back 70 years to soldiers coming back from World War II, when interracial marriage was not allowed. You can’t imagine denying [a veteran] benefits based on state’s rights. We support benefits for all our veterans, not some of our veterans.”

The parallels between how gay marriage is currently playing out in the military, and the long, sad, and tedious process of making interracial marriage legal in every American state, are obvious. But contemporary conservatives, always willing to ignore details of recent history, are even going so far as to invoke the same defense the Right used to defend segregation and anti-miscegenation laws: anti-federalism. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas who opposed the amendment in committee, said, “I don’t want the VA or this committee to impose its views on the State of Kansas.”

According to historian Peggy Pascoe, there are four arguments currently being used by conservative lawmakers to inhibit gay marriage that were also used to push back against Reconstruction in the late 1870s and reassert the legality of white supremacist culture by controlling marriage laws:

1) First, judges claimed that marriage belonged under control of the states rather than the federal government.

2) Second, they began to define and label all interracial relationships (even longstanding deeply committed ones) as illicit sex rather than marriage.

3) Third, they insisted that interracial marriage was against God’s will.

4) Fourth, they declared, over and over again, that interracial marriage was somehow unnatural.

It’s not exactly a secret that the history of America has been a long tug of war over federalism, and that “states’ rights” is usually understood to be a coded term for “suppression of civil rights.” The current motley distribution of gay marriage laws correlates nicely to a pre-Loving v. Virginia map of where interracial marriage was illegal. But the military is peculiar institution. In spite of its reactionary reputation, the military has surprisingly outpaced many of the southern states in implementing progressive social reform. Executive Order 9981, for instance, ended segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948. And in 1963, Directive 5120.36 divested from military facilities that discriminated based on sex or race.

It sounds great that the military seems to have excised itself of Jim Crow laws either on pace with, or faster than, the rest of the country. But even this strain of progress was usually tempered by the realities of implementation. Even after receiving his orders from the commander-in-chief to integrate, Kenneth Claiborne Royall, secretary of the Army, was forced into retirement in 1949 for refusing. As Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, said, “Everyone expected Truman to lose the 1948 election. The Navy and Air Force already had plans to integrate, but the Army maintained a rigid policy of segregation.” And if current numbers of black officers are any indication, there is still a lot of work to be done to fully integrate racial equality into an institution that should, ideally, reflect the demographic make-up and values of the republic that it defends.

Hiding behind the cudgel of “states’ rights” to keep from extending due benefits to service members who—it bears repeating—have risked their lives to defend the rights that are being withheld from them, is perverse. It’s also transparent. More savvy politicians chose to voice their dissent in a different key; they hid behind procedural machinations. Representative David Jolly, a republican from Florida, said that although he agrees with the amendment in spirit, “My concern is with the germaneness [of the amendment], the process–and frankly the frustration at times with how this body works.”

Jolly was referring to the idea that each amendment has to pertain specifically to the bill that it’s attached to. And since this amendment was attached to a bill regulating VA conduct, he doesn’t see the connection. But to not see the connection between improving care for vets and extending that care to all veterans everywhere, seems more than a bit contrived.

It’s at least as contrived as any of the arguments once given in opposition to interracial marriage and desegregation of the Armed Forces, even as thoroughly as Jolly has watered it down with his bureaucratic jargon. The opposition to the amendment differs only in style with the empty rhetoric of “Treat our Veterans Right.” Instead of burying mendacity under vagueness, opponents hide the truth of their values behind the banality of procedural rules. The result is the same, though, and our service members are suffering for it.