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Senate committee advances gay troops’ benefits bill

A Senate committee has advanced legislation named for Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A Senate committee has advanced legislation named for Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A Senate committee advanced legislation on Wednesday that would ensure married gay service members can receive benefits — including veteran’s benefits — for their same-sex spouses.

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved by voice vote as part of a package of additional bills legislation known as the Charlie Morgan Act, which would change the definition of spouse in U.S. code governing troop benefits to ensure spousal benefits flow to gay service members.

The legislation is named after Charlie Morgan, a New Hampshire guardsman who battled incurable breast cancer as she was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by gay troops against the Defense of Marriage Act. Morgan, who was seeking veteran’s benefits for her spouse, Karen Morgan, succumbed to the diseased in February before the Supreme Court struck down DOMA on June 26.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement approval by the committee was a tribute to the late guardsman.

“Every individual who serves in uniform should have access to the benefits they’ve earned,” Shaheen said. “Charlie served on the front lines for our country, but because of her sexual orientation her family has been wrongfully being denied many of the same benefits given to those who stood beside her.”

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of DOMA, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said he’d work to implement spousal benefits for gay troops that weren’t previously allowed under the anti-gay law.

But Title 38, the portion of U.S. code governing veterans’ benefits, defines marriage as an opposite-sex union independently of DOMA. Benefits afforded to veterans under this law include disability compensation and the right to be buried together in a state or national veterans’ cemetery. It’s unclear whether these benefits will flow to veterans with same-sex spouses even with the court ruling against DOMA.

Shaheen concluded passage of the Charlie Morgan Act would complement the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA to ensure gay veterans receive the same benefits as their straight counterparts.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA was a victory for the belief that all Americans are to be treated equally under the law, and I am pleased the Veteran’s Committee has built on the landmark progress we’ve seen for marriage equality,” Shaheen said. “I hope the full Senate will move forward on the Charlie Morgan Act so that finally no spouse, child or family is denied benefits they have earned and deserve.”


Gay service members to receive full severance pay

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A federal court on Monday approved a settlement that will allow gay service members discharged because of their homosexuality to receive full severance pay.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that it reached the roughly $2.4 million agreement on behalf of more than 180 service members who signed onto a class action lawsuit who received only 50 percent of their separation pay when the military discharged them. This policy took effect in 1991, two years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” took effect.

The settlement the ACLU reached with the Pentagon only applies to those discharged before Nov. 10, 2004, because of the statute of limitations.

“It makes no sense to continue to penalize service members who were discharged under a discriminatory statute that has already been repealed,” Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said. “The amount of the pay owed to these veterans is small by military standards, but is hugely significant in acknowledging their service to their country.”

The ACLU in 2010 challenged the policy on behalf of former Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Collins who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006 after a co-worker at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico saw him kiss his boyfriend in their car while they were off-base.

“This means so much to those of us who dedicated ourselves to the military, only to be forced out against our will for being who we are,” Collins said. “We gave all we had to our country, and just wanted the same dignity and respect for our service as any other veterans.”

“There was absolutely no need to subject these service members to a double dose of discrimination by removing them from the armed forces in the first place, and then denying them this small benefit to ease the transition to civilian life,” Laura Schauer Ives, managing attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, added. “This decision represents a long-delayed justice to these veterans.”

The ACLU announced the settlement hours after President Obama nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — his selection sparked controversy among some advocates who have criticized him for his anti-LGBT voting record on Capitol Hill and for describing James Hormel as “openly, aggressively gay” during a 1998 newspaper interview about his nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hagel apologized for his comments.

Former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos are among the military commanders who have said the integration of openly gay men and lesbians into the armed forces has gone smoothly since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became official in September 2011.

Problems, however, remain.

Transgender servicemembers remain unable to openly serve, while the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the military from providing on-base housing, survivor and other spousal benefits to same-sex partners of gay soldiers.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in October 2011 filed a federal lawsuit against DOMA on behalf of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a lesbian guardsman with terminal breast cancer who led the Pledge of Allegiance at New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan’s inauguration on Jan. 3, and other gay service members and veterans. The Southern Poverty Law Center last February filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on behalf of a disabled veteran from California whose application for spousal benefits for her wife whom she legally married outside Los Angeles before voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8 that banned nuptials for gays and lesbians.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in cases challenging both Prop 8 and DOMA at the end of March.

The Obama administration announced in February 2011 it would no longer defend DOMA, but House Republicans continue to back it.


Lesbian guardsman who fought DOMA dies of cancer

Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan died of cancer Sunday morning (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan died of cancer Sunday morning (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A lesbian member of the New Hampshire National Guard who fought the Defense of Marriage Act while battling incurable cancer finally succumbed to the disease early Sunday morning.

Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan died at age 48 after fighting not only cancer, but working on behalf of LGBT rights as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against DOMA and an outspoken activist in favor of marriage equality. The LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN announced the news of her death on Sunday.

Calling Morgan a “courageous fighter,” Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, thanked those in a statement who had supported Morgan as well as her spouse Karen Morgan and daughter Casey Elena.

“She made an indelible mark on everyone she met with her integrity, her positive outlook, and her unflinching commitment to righting the wrongs visited upon gay and lesbian military families,” Robinson said. “The fight for full LGBT equality in this country is forever changed because Charlie Morgan took up the cause.”

In September 2011, Morgan was diagnosed with stage-four incurable breast cancer. After being first diagnosed with the disease in 2008 and undergoing a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, Morgan was declared cancer-free and was deployed to Kuwait, but was later informed her cancer had returned and had to undergo further treatment.

One of the service members plaintiffs in OutServe-SLDN’s litigation against DOMA known as McLaughlin v. Panetta, Morgan had met with staff of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in February 2012 to encourage him to discontinue House Republican defense of the anti-gay law.

During a Washington Blade interview following the meeting at the time, Morgan said she wasn’t afraid to die, but told Boehner’s staff she wanted DOMA stricken from the books to ensure upon her death her spouse would be able to receive pension benefits given to straight counterparts in the U.S. military. The anti-gay law prohibits those pension benefits from flowing to same-sex spouses of troops as well as Social Security death benefits.

“I’m very worried about the military survivor benefits for Karen if I don’t survive this bout with cancer,” Morgan told the Blade. “I explained to her that I wasn’t afraid to die, but I was worried that Karen would not receive the same spousal survivor benefits as our heterosexual counterparts.”

While DOMA prohibits gay service members from receiving health and pension benefits, the Pentagon could extend administratively at any time other partner benefits to gay troops, such as military IDs, joint duty assignments, housing and access to family programs. However, the Defense Department has taken no action.

Morgan publicly came out as a lesbian during an interview on MSNBC on Sept. 20, 2011 — the day that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted — a law that had previously barred her from open service.

In addition to her efforts against DOMA, Morgan was among those who testified in Minneapolis, Minn, before the 15-member Democratic Party platform drafting committee in favor of including a marriage equality plank in the document. The panel ultimately decided to include the language in the platform.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the first U.S. senator to call for marriage equality in the Democratic platform and co-sposnor of legislation to repeal DOMA, issued a statement upon Morgan’s death thanking the service member for her work.

“Charlie Morgan epitomized courage — in her military service, her fight for LGBT equality, and her battle with cancer,” Shaheen said. “She showed us how to live and to die with dignity. I am honored I got to know Charlie and my heart goes out to her wife Karen, her daughter Casey [Elena] and her entire family.”

Additionally, Morgan was selected to lead the Pledge of Allegiance during the inauguration ceremony on Jan. 3 for New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who was elected to office after campaigning on upholding the marriage equality law in her state.

In a statement, Hassan said she and her husband were “deeply saddened” to learn about Morgan’s death, but predicted her efforts against DOMA wouldn’t be in vain.

“A dedicated soldier, wife and mother, her service and sacrifice exemplify what makes America and New Hampshire strong.” Hassan said. “Her fight for equality will outlive her fight against cancer. We can and should honor Charlie’s legacy by continuing her fight to ensure that all families are treated equally by the State of New Hampshire and by the federal government.”


Shaheen honors lesbian guardsman in Senate floor speech

Jeanne Shaheen, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, New Hampshire, Democratic Party

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) honored the life of lesbian guardsman Charlie Morgan on the Senate floor. (Pubic domain photo)

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: