Austin Watkins, left, is a civilian defense worker deployed in Japan. His… (Courtesy of Austin Watkins…)
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Social Security Administration had extended federal benefits to same-sex spouses living in states that don’t recognize gay marriage. That reference has been removed, as the agency is still developing its policy toward such spouses in coordination with the Justice Department.
Austin Watkins had reason to celebrate when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, marking a breakthrough in gay rights and making his husband eligible for federal benefits everywhere in the United States.
But as a civilian defense worker deployed in Japan, Watkins faces a unique barrier. It turns out that a “status of forces agreement,” signed 53 years ago by the United States and Japan, does not recognize same-sex marriage. That prevents him from living with his spouse in Okinawa.
For now, Joseph Marcey resides thousands of miles away in Washington. He would have to apply for a tourist visa every 90 days to live in Okinawa, and he wouldn’t be able to receive medical care at military clinics, shop at a commissary or obtain a dependent ID card from the Defense Department.
“The workarounds for our situation are too cumbersome to be worthwhile,” Watkins said.
While much attention has gone to federal workers who have recently gained the government’s recognition of their same-sex marriages, employees such as Watson have fallen into an unanticipated category in which diplomatic issues have seemingly trumped federal policy.
The challenge has arisen in countries where same-sex marriage is not accepted. As a result, U.S. employees and volunteers with agencies such as the State Department, the Peace Corps and the Defense Department must wrestle with how to do their jobs while honoring who they are and their host country’s values.
The lives of same-sex couples serving abroad often revert to a less-tolerant past — a time before the DOMA ruling, the State Department’s new policy of treating all visa applicants equally, or the agency’s 2009 decision to extend legally permissible benefits to the domestic partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) diplomats.
A spokesman for the Pentagon said the agency is looking into how it should deal with Watkins’s case and others like it.
“DOD is planning a careful review of command sponsorship for overseas tours, as well as all applicable status of forces agreements,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said. “The review of applicable status of forces agreements will be done in coordination with the Department of State.”
Jeremy Curtin, the department’s top human resources adviser on LGBT issues, said the Obama administration is working through the international challenges.
“With DOMA overturned, the whole government is trying to put in rules where same-sex couples are treated the same as any other spouses,” he said. “Up until now, we have not talked about these partnerships as being marriages.”
The rules of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations require nations to grant diplomatic immunity to foreign-
service workers, meaning they are supposed to be subject to the laws of their native country. Still, some governments ignore those guidelines when it comes to same-sex marriage, forcing the State Department to seek workarounds.
“If there is not direct recognition, then we have to find ways to accommodate them,” Curtin said. “Our goal in the State Department is to get equal treatment for all of our employees and their whole families.”
Ken Kero-Mentz, president of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and another adviser on LGBT issues with State, said most government agencies have made strides regarding their gay employees and volunteers but says more work remains.
“There’s still a lot to do, but the will is there with this administration,” Kero-Mentz said. “The activists’ role is to push and cajole and help develop strategies.”
He estimates that one-quarter of the roughly 190 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the United States are willing to offer full privileges and immunity to same-sex spouses. Kero-Mentz said the United States should consider withholding visas for countries that don’t do so. But that path involves foreign-policy implications.
“It’s a political decision how far to push,” Curtin said, noting that some governments don’t respond well to pressure on LGBT issues. “It could do more harm than good, because some countries are willing to create a workaround, but if you ask directly, the answer is no.”
Kero-Mentz has firsthand experience dealing with inequality abroad. His German-born domestic partner, David, was denied diplomatic privileges while Kero-Mentz was based in Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2011.