Defeating DOMA after DADT: One advocate’s journey
April 11, 2013
For the past decade, Jenn Veryzer has been sharing her personal story and speaking out about how the unequal treatment of gay men and lesbians hurts her relationships and her family. But her journey as an advocate began long before she even thought about getting married herself. She has been serving in the military for years - first starting service in the mid-90s and now a reservist based in Florida. For years, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy prevented her from publicly sharing her relationship with her partner Steph.
Jenn and Steph met in 2000 through a social group for lesbian women and began dating a few months later. For the next seven and a half years, they shared a strong, committed relationship. They were often geographically separated because of Jenn's military service - she was stationed in Savannah, GA while Steph worked as a graphic artist in Tampa, FL - but they forged an intimate connection and a lasting bond that merited the government's full respect.
In their fifth year together, Steph was diagnosed with a very rare cancer. "While I was serving, for two and a half years, my partner was terminally ill," Jenn explained. "Had we been married at the time of her death, I would have been eligible for leave and have had access to programs that provide relief and support in times of family emergencies, grief counseling, and more. But because I couldn't be publicly out because of DADT, I was ineligible to receive those." Steph passed away on July 2, 2007, and because of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Jenn was barred from spending those last few days by Steph's side.
Jenn recalled how upsetting that experience was, and how it placed a taxing financial and emotional strain on her life. "It was like being convicted of a crime and sitting in a jail when you're innocent," she said. "I felt trapped. I had a fellow aviator whose wife was sick with cancer, and I watched the support he received. He was equal to his comrades, but I had to mourn in secrecy. I was beyond angry; I was furious at the situation. Had marriage been legal, I would have absolutely married Steph."
Still, Jenn continued to advocate for the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell as much as she could within her position after Steph's death. She was ecstatic the day it was finally repealed on September 20, 2011 - but despite the good news, she had extreme anxiety about coming out. "I wanted to put a human face to the story before service members started joking around about coming out of the closet," she remembered. "I took the day off, got on my Facebook page, and wrote a tribute to my partner who stood by me until her death. It took me 35 minutes to click post, but I needed to do it for myself. I had earned the respect of my peers, I knew I was good at what I did, and I wanted them to know."
The note thanked her friends and family for being there for her and thanked Steph for the life they shared:
"I thank you for being my guiding light, my rock, whether you realized it or not. You judged no one in life and taught me all things unconditional regarding the human connection. These were lessons that go beyond any measure of greatness. Today I thank you for forgiving me that I could not be by your side at your passing. That when I wanted to quit, you begged me to have faith and never give up. That our journey was coming to an end, but by being a quiet professional, I could help facilitate change. You asked me to be a soldier against prejudice - I did my best to live up to that promise, and I take great comfort knowing you are proud of me for enduring, standing tall and doing my absolute best in being the best human I can be, regardless of adversity. I miss you more than words can ever express and your impact on this world will forever remain. Thank you, Steph, for being one of the most amazing people I have ever had the privilege of knowing."
Jenn received overwhelming support and no negative feedback from any of her colleagues or family after coming out as an open service member. Although she was not able to celebrate the moment with Steph, her partner's memory was a source of comfort. "We were committed, regardless of a license," she said.
Today Jenn serves openly and proudly, but she continues to suffer the harms of DOMA. Although she'll never get back the life she couldn't have with Steph because of DADT and DOMA, she continues to advocate in her memory and has found some inner peace. "Before Steph passed away, she sat me down and told me she wanted me to leave my heart open to love again," Jenn remembered. "Fortunately for me - and after 5 years - I met someone that taught me to love again. It is because of my past and present relationships that I cannot stay silent about the need to rid this country of DOMA."
Jenn and her partner Carrie have been together for a year now. They are committed to each other and plan to marry next month. When they do, in one of nine states that performs marriage for same-sex couples, Jenn's insurance policy will cover her wife and their two children. But militarily, when Jenn returns to active duty, they will still not be recognized on the federal level because of DOMA.
Jenn is hopeful that the Supreme Court will make the right decision on marriage, but regrets what it has taken to finally get to this step. "It amazes me that we have such crises like education, health care and poverty levels, and we're discussing who loves who," she said. "I'm just fascinated and blown away all at the same time." She said that she intends to continue advocating for equality and making the case for marriage in the various chapters of her own life. She said, "If by speaking aloud, I can help this cause to rid us of DOMA, I'm glad to help."