Las Vegas Sun

December 10, 2023

Married gay veterans’ next battle is for equal VA benefits

Congresswoman Dina Titus

Congresswoman Dina Titus

U.S. Air Force Capt. CJ Wilkinson was about to settle into his dream life.

The 32-year-old intelligence officer had legally married his husband in California a month after the Supreme Court effectively ended the state’s ban on same-sex marriages. They were looking forward to starting a new life together in Las Vegas after living apart for years. They picked a three-bedroom home in Summerlin.

But they ran into a problem. Although the military recognized their union, the Veterans Affairs department did not.

The Wilkinsons needed the VA to guarantee their $175,000 bank loan, a service the department provides to active-duty service members and veterans. Wilkinson qualified for up to $200,000 in loan guarantees from the VA when he was single, but once he got married, the VA would back only half of his loan.

“They are actually penalizing me for getting married,” he said.

That’s because one year after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act that expanded federal benefits to same-sex married couples, Veterans Affairs is one of the federal government’s last holdouts for reform. Gay service members can serve openly in the military, but once they get out, they and their families lose their benefits because they fall under the jurisdiction of the VA.

The VA doesn’t recognize legally married same-sex couples unless they live in or have lived in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage when they got married. Nevada doesn’t, though a case is pending in a federal appeals court that could change that.

The Wilkinsons’ next problem: It will take an act of Congress, one of the least-productive places in the country, to fix the problem. The VA doesn’t have the power to change its policies on same-sex marriage.

Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Las Vegas, is trying to get Congress to act. She introduced legislation that would require the VA to recognize any marriage that has been recognized by a state.

That would allow veterans and active-duty members like Wilkinson, who was married in California but lived in Texas at the time, to get home loans with his spouse, be buried together in a veterans cemetery and have his spouse receive survivor benefits if he’s killed on duty.

To win support for her bill, Titus frames it as a veterans rights issue, not a gay rights one.

“We’re making the argument that if you’re a veteran, you put on a uniform, you deserve the same rights as every other veteran, and your family deserves the same benefits as every other veteran’s family,” Titus said.

Her bill has 48 co-sponsors and a companion bill in the Senate. But it’s still a long shot. She introduced it a year ago, soon after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, and it hasn’t moved beyond a hearing in the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The VA is consumed by a scandal of shoddy, mismanaged hospital care, and Congress is having a hard time agreeing on legislation to fix even that high-profile problem.

In the meantime, the VA is doing what it can without Congress. The agency announced in June it will allow any veteran “in a committed relationship” to be considered for burial in a national cemetery.

But that won’t help people like Wilkinson buy a home. Instead, he and his husband persuaded the bank to lend them the money without a full guarantee from the VA. If the Wilkinsons default, the VA will back only half the loan.

Gay rights advocates say the federal government is doing what it can to recognize same-sex marriages since the Supreme Court ruling.

“The administration’s implementation … has been breathtaking,” said Fred Sainz, vice president of communications and marketing at the gay-rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. “Absolutely, without question, the largest conferral of gay rights in our nation’s history.”

Sainz wasn’t as complimentary about Congress. Lawmakers have not been able to pass any substantial gay-rights legislation, such as protection from job discrimination.

That doesn’t bode well for Titus’ bill. But she still believes change will come.

“This is kind of a tidal wave that you can’t turn back,” she said. “It’s history.”

Wilkinson said he’d like to see the law reflect that.

“It’s a matter of principle of trying to get something that other service members would have gotten,” he said.

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