The senior senator from New Hampshire took to the Senate floor on Thursday to honor the life of a recently deceased lesbian guardsman who fought against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who died Sunday after battling breast cancer and DOMA, was one of the nation’s “outstanding citizens” and touted the late service member’s efforts in the military and LGBT advocacy.
“Many know Charlie for the national attention she received over the last several years advocating on behalf of fellow gay service members and their families,” Shaheen said. “However, first and foremost Charlie was a soldier.”
Shaheen was apparently holding back tears on the Senate floor as she informed the chamber that Morgan was “just 48 years old” upon her death.
As Shaheen noted, Morgan began her military service by enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1982 and participating in a year-long deployment to Kuwait following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Afterward, Morgan became involved in LGBT activism after being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer so that upon her death her spouse Karen Morgan and five-year-old daughter Casey Elena would have access to military spousal benefits.
A plaintiff in OutServe-SLDN’s lawsuit against DOMA, Morgan met with staff from U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year to urge him to discontinue House Republican defense of the anti-gay law in court. She also testified before the 15-member Democratic Party draft platform committee in favor of including a marriage equality plank in the document, which was ultimately added.
“I hope that Charlie Morgan knew how many lives she touched and how greatly we admired her efforts,” Shaheen said. “I know that she will be sorely missed, and that her example will continue to guide us well into the future.”
Shaheen said she met Morgan in 2011 when she contacted the senator’s office upon her return from Kuwait. Morgan received notification that her spouse would be unable to attend a transition program known as National Guard Yellow Ribbon Reintegration. The senator said she worked with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to ensure Morgan’s family could participate.
Following Morgan’s death, Shaheen said she’s received more than 2,000 messages of support from citizens all across our country. She read a couple of them on the Senate floor. One read, “Charlie is a hero to many of us. Thank you for making your lives public so others can live their lives privately in love.” Another read, “Thank you so much Charlie for all you have done. You will not be forgotten, and your service, work and legacy will live on. Those of us left behind will honor you by continuing on in this all-important fight for equality.”
Shaheen noted Morgan died just one day before the Pentagon announced that it would extend limited partner benefits to gay troops, saying “it is unfortunate” Morgan was unable to live to see the accomplishment.
Concluding her speech, Shaheen announced that she would soon introduce a bill she called the Charlie Morgan Act, which she said would end a number of restrictions of benefits for legal spouses for service members, regardless of sexual orientation.
Smith reintroduces benefits bill for gay troops
In related news, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, announced on Thursday that he reintroduced the Military Spouse Equal Treatment Act, which would change the definition of “spouse” under U.S. code governing the rights of service members. Smith introduced the bill for the first time last year.
“This bill would make sure that service members and veterans with same-sex spouses receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts,” Smith said. “All spouses of those serving in our Armed Services make tremendous sacrifices for our country, and no one should be prevented from receiving hard-earned benefits simply because they are the same sex as their partner.”
U.S. code under Titles 10, 32, and 38 restricts the definition of spouse to opposite-sex couples. Even if DOMA were repealed, gay service members would still be unable to receive certain major ticket partner benefits — like health and pension benefits — with these sections of U.S. code still in place. Smith’s bill would alter these provisions of U.S. code and add a favorable controlling definition of “spouse” to Title 37.
Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, said passage of the legislation would put gay service members on the same footing as their straight comrades.
“Treating service members equally, without partiality or favoritism, is one of the most basic principles of sound military leadership,” Robinson said. “For this reason, equality for LGBT troops and their families is a national security issue. Commanders should not be forced to treat some service members like second-class citizens because the federal government does not recognize their marriages.”
Among the original co-sponsors of the legislation is Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a freshman gay member of the U.S. House. In a statement, Pocan called the legislation an important step forward after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Supporting our servicemen and women and our veterans also means supporting their spouses and families, whose sacrifices often go unseen and unrecognized,” Pocan said. “This support should not be contingent on whether a member of our military is gay or straight.”
Watch a video of Shaheen’s floor speech here: