For same-sex military couples, a battle on the home front
FOXBOROUGH — When the twins came along, Casey McLaughlin left her job as a high school history teacher and stayed home with them. Now 2, Grant and Grace keep her busy, on a recent day demanding yogurt, Play-Doh — and Mama.
Like any other military wife, McLaughlin, 35, worries about her spouse’s possible deployments, combat duty, and the mandatory weeks of training each year. But when the Massachusetts National Guard holds retreats for married couples to help them better cope with the stresses of military life, Casey McLaughlin is not invited.
That’s because she is married to a woman, Major Shannon McLaughlin, 42, who has been in the military for 14 years. Shannon was deployed to the Middle East just after 9/11. She was a third-year law student at Boston College when her Navy Reserve unit was activated for nearly a year. When she returned, she completed law school. In 2005, she switched to the Army National Guard, where she is a judge advocate general, or lawyer.
Casey Brennan and Shannon McLaughlin married in 2010, but did not tell anyone in the military for fear that Shannon would lose her job. “It was dangerous for me to reach out to other wives,” says Casey.
In early 2011, Shannon’s unit was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan while “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect. Casey was six months pregnant, and Shannon decided she had to do something. “I took the very dangerous but necessary act of bringing her to a Yellow Ribbon event, which gets families ready for deployment,” says Shannon. “I knew I was going to be leaving my wife for a year with two new babies.”
No one said anything negative to them while they were there; under the rules, military personnel can bring anyone to the event, including a friend. “Shannon was not allowed, however, to introduce me as her spouse, otherwise she would have risked discharge,” says Casey.
In the end, Shannon’s unit was not deployed, and when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in late 2011, they felt somewhat safer as a couple.
In the shadows for so long, Casey and Shannon McLaughlin now feel the need to speak out on behalf of other military couples like themselves, who they believe have been treated like second-class citizens.
The time appears ripe: a US Supreme Court case on gay marriage is expected to be heard March 27; on Feb. 11, departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that 20 benefits will be extended to same-sex couples in the military, ranging from hospital visitation privileges to membership in family readiness groups; President Obama addressed the rights of gay and lesbian couples in his State of the Union speech; and a recent full-page ad in the New York Times quoted bipartisan leaders on the freeedom to marry.
In a major policy shift, the Obama administration in late Februrary filed a brief in the Supreme Court case declaring the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, “violates the fundamental constitutional guarantee of equal protection” by denying thousands of married same-sex couples “an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples.”
Dozens of top Republicans have also signed a brief in support of gay marriage, including former advisers to President George W. Bush and former Massachusetts governors William Weld and Jane Swift.
After the November elections, a Gallup poll found that 53 percent of the public said that same-sex marriage should be legal. The McLaughlins are pleased at the Pentagon announcement that the military will now allow gay and lesbian personnel to receive some spousal benefits, but they feel it was late in coming and limited in scope.
“Before that announcement, Casey was absolutely invisible to the military,” says Shannon. “She was just like a roommate. She had no access to the base, no dependent ID card to get into the commissary, the base exchange, the bowling alley, swimming pool and lessons for the kids, the recreational activities, the discount tickets that make family life a little more enjoyable, a little easier.” The expanded benefits will not go into effect until Aug. 31 at the earliest, according to the Pentagon.
Shannon shops at the commissary, or military grocery store, at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford because of the discounted prices, but Casey is not allowed in by herself because she has no military spouse ID card.
The military also holds marital retreats to support couples. Two years ago, the McLaughlins had just had their twins when Shannon got an e-mail about an upcoming retreat. “They said any couples who want to go, can go,” she recalls. Still, she decided to check with the chaplain in charge.
He told her he was sorry, but Shannon and Casey couldn’t come to the retreat because under DOMA, they aren’t considered married. “But he gave me workbooks to take home,” says Shannon.
The couple was married by Foxboroough Town Clerk Bob Cutler. Nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. But under DOMA, the federal government does not, and military personnel are federal employees.
The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, defines marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman. Gay and lesbian groups say it denies them equal protection.
Full benefits for same-sex partners in the military, such as health care and housing, would require the repeal of DOMA. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the law’s constitutionality this month. The Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law in 2011.
When she was teaching, Casey had her own health insurance, but when she quit after the twins were born, she was not allowed to go onto her wife’s policy. She pays nearly $700 a month for what she calls minimal coverage. The twins are covered under Shannon’s policy.
And if Shannon needed base housing, she’d be assigned to officers’ bachelor’s quarters, even though she is part of a family of four.
The McLaughlins live in a Victorian in Foxborough that they bought and renovated. There are family photographs everywhere, and a large playroom filled with toys and books. In 2011, Shannon was elected to the Foxborough Planning Board for a three-year term.
Casey, who was impregnated with Shannon’s eggs and donated sperm, is “Mama,” and Shannon is “Baba.” On a recent afternoon, Shannon is still dressed in her work clothes: the Army fatigues she wears in her Wellesley office. In between the demands of Grant and Grace, the couple sit on a couch talking about Panetta’s announcement and the upcoming Supreme Court case.
They are also the lead plaintiffs in McLaughlin v. Panetta, in federal court in Massachusetts, and stayed pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case on DOMA. The lawsuit seeks medical, dental, housing, and survivor’s benefits for military spouses in gay marriages.
“It was a difficult decision for me, because you don’t want to sue your employer,” says Shannon. “And for the most part, the military has been very good to me. But I just want Casey to be treated the same as other military wives, and I feel it’s disrespectful that she’s not."
In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama touched on the issue, while Tracey Hepner, cofounder of Military Partners and Families Coalition, sat with first lady Michelle Obama. Hepner is married to the military’s first openly gay or lesbian general, Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith.
“We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families — gay and straight,” the president said.
Afterward, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a statement calling for Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act: “Every day, LGBT service members put their lives on the line, yet they and their families continue to be treated as ‘less than.’ This is unconscionable.”
Shannon McLaughlin loves her job and is proud of her military record. “I’m really dedicated to serving my country,” she says. “It’s very rewarding.” But because of the difficulties with her marital status, she has thought about leaving the military, should the Defense of Marriage Act be upheld.
“It is something I struggle with,” she says. “I don’t want anything extra that others don’t have. Just let me provide for my wife like any other person in the military.”
She notes that Casey has to deal with what other service wives deal with: weekend drills, possible deployment, weeks of annual training, and the “usual run-of-the mill state emergencies” that occur. Shannon, for instance, was called upon to work the recent blizzard with other National Guard members.
As she speaks, Casey holds Shannon’s hand and nods. “The jargon that they’re using to justify us not being equal is the same toxic argument they used when interracial couples wanted to be recognized, Casey says. “That to me is revolting.”
But she’s optimistic that the Supreme Court will reject DOMA. “The faith and hope I have, being an American, is that the court is going to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.” With that, she goes to spoon some more yogurt into two hungry toddlers’ mouths.