A few years ago, gay military couples lived isolated lives in the shadows, afraid that if they were honest about their relationships, military careers would end — and many did in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era.
But the first American Military Partners Association gala, held at a Washington, D.C., hotel May 17, was a stark contrast, as partners celebrated their relationships, their close-knit support group and the societal changes that have given them more parity with straight couples — even as they acknowledge there is work to be done.
“I’m absolutely astonished we’re here,” said Ashley Broadway, wife of Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack, speaking before more than 300 people. She recalled finding the newly formed Campaign for Military Partners, AMPA’s forerunner, in 2010, and her surprise at learning there were even a few other gay couples in the military.
The group has grown exponentially since then, and it has been instrumental in helping make changes to benefit gay military couples. But its biggest impact may be in the support its members offer one another.
“We truly are one family,” Broadway said. It’s one that includes officers, enlisted members and veterans of all service branches, as well as their spouses and partners.
“Whether we’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and of course our straight amazing allies ... we laugh together, we cry together … we celebrate our victories together, we endure deployments together. We worry about benefit cuts together. ... As military families we live them together,” she said.
Along with many others in the room, Bobby McDaniel reflected on how much things have changed for gay military couples. Not so long ago, he and his then-partner, an Army officer, were unable to make military friends together, for fear that word would get out about their relationship and hurt his partner’s career.
McDaniel traveled to Washington from Nicaragua, where his Army colonel husband is stationed, to prepare for their move this summer, and to attend — and volunteer his help at — the first AMPA gala. He and his partner married in 2011 after seven years together.
The AMPA “family” has given him a “private sounding board.” And while he may be married to an Army colonel, he said, “I didn’t know anything about the military culture because I was removed from it. AMPA has given me the tools to navigate the system” to find out about benefits when they became available to same-sex military couples.
For these military couples, the first and most important benefit was the freedom to acknowledge the relationship. When his husband was recently promoted to colonel, McDaniel said, “I was thinking this was the first time I’ve been able to be part of his promotion ceremony.
“You don’t really realize what you’re forgoing until you have the benefit.”