It's almost impossible to imagine: The Department of Defense has announced that no later than Sep. 3, 2013, same-sex spouses of military personnel will receive all the spousal benefits that different-sex military spouses receive, in addition to special leave to travel to a state where they can be legally married if the state in which they are stationed does not have marriage equality.
Military spousal benefits are important for reasons that most people just don't get. To understand how far we've come, it's important to understand where we were right after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). By looking at how things were even a year ago, it is clear that this announcement closes a chapter in the gay rights movement.
Firstly, this announcement translates into equal pay. Unlike in civilian employment, where your salary is independent of your marital status, in the military you only get top pay if you're married with dependents. This means that even after the repeal of DADT, discrimination against gay military personnel continued because same-sex marriages weren't recognized. In most cases it meant that a married gay man was worth less than half of what a married heterosexual of the same rank and seniority was worth.
Secondly, there's the fact that the military requires constant travel. "Orders" are basically documents that tell you where you'll be employed for the next two to five years. Individuals can negotiate for specific orders, but it's mostly assigned according to the needs of the military. As you can imagine, when you get orders to move from Texas to Japan, the moving costs could be substantial. But unless you are registered in military paperwork as married, you might not even qualify for housing or be authorized to live off the base, much less be reimbursed for moving expenses. Because your spouse is not an "official" spouse, you would have to pay for additional housing and rotating 90-day visas, and all of this with a meager paycheck that is only intended as disposable income, not as a lifeline for food and housing. Because of your officially "single" status, the regular benefits that would cover those things just wouldn't be provided. This means that low-ranking gay service members (like me) were disproportionately affected.
Thirdly, there's the fact that being in the military involves stress and danger. Frequent deployments overseas, war in the Middle East, and Cold War-like conditions in the Pacific with China mean that service members from every branch are often faced with traumatic stress and life-or-death decisions. Even in peacetime, leaving your family for three to nine months every year or two is stressful. For young couples it means constantly relearning how to communicate and coexist. The military provides a variety of benefits to try to strengthen families before, during and after deployments, but without access to those services, military families can experience higher rates of divorce, estrangement from children and problems at work.
With the Department of Defense's recent announcement, these issues have mostly been solved. While continued efforts need to be made in the DoD to protect and ensure the rights of transgender service members, there is no doubt that we've made a great leap forward.
As a veteran I can tell you that this announcement marked the close of an important chapter of my life. For many of us who served before the repeal of DADT, it's almost surreal. Not even a year ago I wrote my first blog post on The Huffington Post, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the repeal of DADT. Full rights for gay military couples seemed like a long shot back then. Like the repeal of DADT, this announcement will be remembered joyously as a part of our shared LGBT history.