Oklahoma

11.27.13

Oklahoma’s Governor Denies Marriage Benefits to National Guard Members

To prevent gay soldiers from receiving marriage benefits, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin ordered state National Guard facilities to stop processing benefits for all service members.

As you tuck into that turkey and dressing Thursday, add this to your list of things to be thankful for this season: You are not a member of the Oklahoma National Guard. Profuse apologies, of course, to those of you who are in the Oklahoma National Guard and have been barred from obtaining your marriage benefits by a Governor so intent on blocking gay marriage she's decided to shut the whole system down and deny straight couples their rights in the process.  

This is not to disparage the proud men and women of the Oklahoma Guard, who are doubtless every inch as patriotic, brave, honorable and all-around fantastic as their colleagues in other states. In early November, however, the Sooner State decided that—fabulous or not—guard members will no longer be allowed to apply for spousal benefits at state-run guard facilities. Henceforth they must trek either to one of the Oklahoma’s four federally run Guard bases or to one of its five installations run by other branches of the military.

Why? Blame it on those greedy, grabby gays. In the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court ruling against DOMA, the Pentagon decreed that gay military personnel are entitled to the same spousal benefits as other members. This means that, if straight National Guard members can get their benefits processed and IDs issued at state facilities, gay ones can too. When Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin and eight other governors dragged their feet, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered them to shape the hell up. Fallin’s response: Fine. If you’re going to be that way, we won’t process benefits for anyone.

Please do not suggest that this is about hating on the gays. It’s simply about respecting the law, the governor insists. As her communications director, Alex Weintz, explained it to me, “In 2004, there was a constitutional provision on the ballot that defined marriage between a man and a woman and also said that we don’t recognize or confer marriage benefits on any other type of marriages besides that. It passed with 75 percent of the vote. And what the governor has been saying is, regardless of where you stand on gay marriage, she’s Oklahoma’s chief executive, and she can’t ignore Oklahoma law.” Indeed, Fallin’s Nov. 6 statement on the issue piously asserted: “The decision reached today allows the National Guard to obey Oklahoma law without violating federal rules or policies. It protects the integrity of our state Constitution and sends a message to the federal government that they cannot simply ignore our laws or the will of the people.”

Unsurprisingly, the national media has had a field day with the news—including, most brilliantly Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

++VIDEO EMBED++ [http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/430769/november-21-2013/mary-fallin-and-same-sex-benefits].

On the November 21 “Colbert Report,” the satirical host cheered Oklahoma for its commitment to remaining “Oklahetera” and praised the governor’s trail-blazing stand: “Governor Fallin is setting a great precedent here. Rather than provide any services for gay people, the government should refuse to provide them for everyone. Because once a gay person gets something, it gets their gay all over it.” To prevent such creeping corruption, declared Colbert, we should move to abolish everything from the military (protects gays and straights alike) to the fire department (ditto) to public schools where the kids of gays sit side-by-side with the kids of straights, learning the same math “so they can go home and count the number of mommies they have.”

Colbert’s riff was hilarious but it raises a genuine question. How far are anti-gay-rights warriors like Fallin willing to go down this rabbit hole? As the shifting legal landscape—fueled by an equally dramatic shift in public opinion—eats away at states’ power to discriminate, those with anti-gay measures on their books will need to execute ever more complicated legislative gymnastics in order to keep pretending (legally at least) that gay marriage is not a reality that is here to stay.

As Toby Jenkins, executive director of the LGBT activist group Oklahomans for Equality, points out, military benefits are hardly the only area in which gays and lesbians are receiving unequal treatment. Per the constitutional amendment, Oklahoma’s tax commission cannot process joint returns filed by same-sex couples, and its DMVs cannot process name-changes for same-sex spouses. It’s absurd, says Jenkins, you can walk into a passport office or the Social Security office with an Iowa marriage license and they will issue you a document with your married name “without batting an eye, but the Oklahoma DMV says, ‘We will not recognize that name change.’” When Oklahoma’s discriminatory practices conflict with federal law, what other services will the state be willing to deny to straight people merely so they can deny them to gays?

It’s not a question for Oklahoma alone. Even after Hagel’s scolding, a half-dozen states continued to labor furiously to hold back the onslaught of marriage equality. Loud and proud among them has been Rick Perry’s Texas (surprise!), where the state government is refusing to process same-sex couples’ requests for housing allowances at state-run offices. Maybe Colbert is right: Maybe we should do away with military housing altogether. Heaven forbid anyone think that the state of Texas is in any way contributing to the gayification of military housing.

For its part, Fallin’s office dismisses the shift in processing benefits as much ado about nothing. “The practical impact for guardsmen is limited if any,” Alex Weintz assures me. “We have not heard of anyone having to travel long distances or be significantly inconvenienced.” Weintz adds that the governor is equally unconcerned about political blowback: “People in Oklahoma I think understand that this is about following the law.”

Say this for Fallin: The woman has cojones. At a time when the Republican party is desperately looking to lose its rep as a bunch of angry, extremist, old white guys, it takes a bold leader to stand up and say: Forget all those wussy states bowing to federal law. Oklahoma opposes gay rights so vehemently that we are willing to punish straight folks who are serving in the military in order to maintain our radiant ideological purity.

Such culture-war hardball may play well enough within the super-red districts of Oklahoma, but it’s hard to imagine it doing any favors for the GOP’s national brand—especially among the younger voters the party is struggling to attract. Seems a high price to pay for its increasingly futile battle to keep the gay at bay.