U.S. News

06.26.13

DOMA Struck Down: A Gay Warrior’s Joyful Day

On a historic day, the retired colonel who became the first service member to successfully petition to have a same-sex spouse buried in a military cemetery talks to Eleanor Clift.

I reached retired Lt. Col. Linda Campbell at her home in Portland, Oregon, about an hour after the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. “I’m still trying to get my mind around this thing. I still can’t believe it,” she exclaimed, the emotion evident in her voice. “The whole world is upside down, topsy-turvy, and joyful.”

Campbell had hoped to be on hand in Washington when the court ruled, but then she realized her hero, Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old plaintiff in the DOMA case, probably wouldn’t be there, and that her time would be better spent speaking at a rally in Portland than flying cross-country.

Campbell became something of a cause célèbre herself when she successfully petitioned the Veterans Administration for a waiver for her spouse to be buried in a military cemetery—the first ever granted to a same-sex couple. She spent hours waiting in line in the cold last March so she could enter the courtroom for just three minutes when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the landmark DOMA case. She told me then:

“I just have to be there. This means everything to me,” she told me before the hearing. “It’s the whole focus of my life. I don’t have Nancy anymore. I just have our marriage.”

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After the Supreme Court's landmark gay marriage decisions Wednesday, revelers flocked to the Stonewall Inn, a historic touchstone of the gay rights movement.

Now, with victory achieved, she found herself thinking back to when she was a young officer in the military in 1968 and was told it would be dangerous for her then-girlfriend to even visit.

“Today she would come on the base, get an ID—and we’d get a housing allowance, along with all the other married couples,” she said Wednesday. In contrast to all the hurdles she faced to secure burial rights for her spouse, Nancy Lynchild, who died in December at age 64, “today we would have the comfort of knowing that we would be treated respectfully like any other married couple.”

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After learning of the decision early Wednesday, Campbell emailed several friends to share her joy. Among them was Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, the first openly gay person promoted to the rank of general in the U.S. military.

In our conversation, Campbell welcomed the finality that the Supreme Court’s decision brings to an issue that has confounded so many for so long. “This can’t be taken away. This time it’s for real,” she says. In her case, there were failed attempts to marry in several jurisdictions before she and Nancy finally succeeded in Canada, “where it counted, but it didn’t count here.”

The governor and a number of state officials are also expected to join her at the rally this afternoon in Portland. “Oregon is going to celebrate,” says Campbell. “We’re going on the ballot in 2014 for marriage equality.” Twelve states plus the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, and the court’s rulings Wednesday will likely speed up action in many other states.

“Today we would have the comfort of knowing that we would be treated respectfully like any other married couple.”

Earlier this week Campbell was notified by Willamette National Cemetery that she can have the image of a sandhill crane on Nancy’s headstone. “Now the hardest part of all, I need to bury her,” she said in an email. Evidence of the couple’s enduring bond is in the two urns and a Hopi vase that hold Nancy’s ashes and that Campbell keeps in her bedroom. One urn is for burying, the other for spreading ashes in special places, and the Hopi vase is for collecting Campbell’s ashes when the time comes, so the couple can be buried together.

As we finished our conversation this morning, Campbell said she was going to take a bit of time alone to reflect on the impact of the court’s decision and to gather her thoughts. “I think I’m going to wander the streets and look at the river and remember Nancy—as I find the words to express how I feel.”