State National Guards Cave, Provide Benefits to Gay Couples

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, one of the Republican politicians exploiting gay servicemembers for their own ends.

Photo by Sue Ogrocki-Pool/Getty Images

Following a pointless though mercifully brief campaign of resistance, the six states denying benefits to legally married same-sex spouses of National Guard members have caved almost completely. As a face-saving compromise, three states—Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—will deny spousal benefits to all National Guard members at state-run facilities, forcing them to travel to federally run facilities to claim their benefits.

This was inevitable. As I’ve noted before, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution is quite clear that when state and federal law conflict in this manner, federal law wins. Florida, Oklahoma, and South Carolina’s federal facility runaround is a rather transparent joke: Indiana and West Virginia, both of which also ban same-sex marriage, are providing gay spousal benefits at state facilities without questioning its legality. There was, of course, never any legitimate legal issue to begin with, as the Defense Department knew: This entire charade was simply an opportunity for Republican governors to score points with homophobic voters. In a sense, then, everyone wins.

Everyone, that is, except for the gay servicemembers themselves—for several months they became hostages in a manufactured and completely unwarranted political standoff. It’s a familiar position for them: During the extensive debate over the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, senators sparred over the effects of the bill on servicemembers, often presuming that open service would somehow wreck morale and unit cohesion (not to mention the insulting separate showers canard). A few years later, we know that DADT repeal actually made the Army a better place for all soldiers, gay, straight, and bi. But we had to slog through months of absurd obstruction tactics, stoking the fires of homophobia, before reaching this commonsense solution.

The logical next step of providing benefits to married gay servicemembers—a move commanded by the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor—should’ve been less controversial. But once again, the road to equality was blocked by homophobic politicians bent on stirring trouble. As ridiculous as the states’ rights argument was, it had a certain ring of authenticity, and it allowed lawmakers to cower behind respect for state law rather than concede their true, bigoted objections to spousal benefits for gay couples. They’ve now lost that fight, but we’ve seen enough of these strategies to know that they’ll soon find another one to pick.

There’s a lesson in all this. Anti-gay politicians often protest that gay equality will disrupt the natural order of things, violate laws and principles, offend the citizenry, divide the country. But the only disruption is caused by politicians themselves. The transition to a gay-friendly military with equal rights for all servicemembers could’ve been seamless. Instead, Republican legislators have tried to sabotage it at every turn. It’s a vile game—especially when the wellbeing of our servicemembers is at stake—but also an effective one. So long as homophobes vote as a bloc, issues like these are ripe for pandering. It doesn’t matter whether the victim is an old woman, an orphan, or a soldier: No American citizen is too brave or vulnerable to become the target of some red state politician’s vote-nabbing anti-gay animus.