Military couple Ashley and Heather: How DOMA disrespects our family

Ashley Broadway was panicked.

After 36 hours of labor, her partner of 13 years, Army Lt. Col. Heather Mack, had finally delivered their child in a military hospital in Texas. Doctors ordered an emergency C-section, and the delivery left Heather in the Intensive Care Unit. The child, Carson was also left in serious condition, and as doctors rushed him to a nearby hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit, Ashley needed to make a decision: Should she stay with her ailing partner, or leave with her son?

As her mind reeled, Ashley tried to maintain her composure. She knew that she needed to keep her emotions in check, watch her body language, be careful about what she said, and follow the meticulous rules that she had set for herself for the past 13 years. It was 2010, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the federal policy that prohibited gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the U.S. military, was still the law of the land. She needed to stay faithful to her role as Heather's "sister," Carson's "aunt."

In the months leading up to the delivery, Ashley and Heather had prepared themselves as best as they could. They hired an expensive private lawyer to arrange Heather's medical directives and ensure that Ashley would be authorized to make decisions for Heather and for Carson. They ensured that Ashley would be listed as a legal guardian for Carson, even though she could not appear on the birth certificate. They made sure to carry this paperwork with them everywhere as Heather's due date approached. And they decided that no matter what were to happen with Heather, Ashley should stay by Carson's side.

Ashley left Heather's hospital room to be with Carson in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she was met with a roadblock.

"I'm family," Ashley explained to the nurses. "I'm Carson's aunt."

"We need proper documentation, ma'am," a nurse told her. "We can't let anyone in the room except for documented family. The mother or the father."

Ashley paused and took a breath, reaching into her bag for her paperwork. "I shouldn't have to do this," she said. "But here it is - here's my lawyer's card. Here's the proper documentation. I need to get in there."

The nurse, confused by the unfamiliar paperwork and situation, called in a doctor, who brought Ashley into a private room and closed the door. Ashley was exhausted - she had hardly slept or eaten since bringing Heather to the hospital for the delivery, and she couldn't believe that she was being blocked from seeing her son."

"You're not his aunt, are you?" the doctor asked quietly.

Ashley put her head down and started crying. "No," she admitted. "I'm not."

The doctor understood. "This is your partner's biological child, isn't he?" he said, and Ashley nodded.

"Then you are his mother, and you will be in this hospital," he said. "You will be able to go back there and see him."

Ashley breathed a sigh of relief and went to keep watch over her son.

The birth of her child, after years of struggling with fertility specialists and trying to extend her family, was supposed to be one of the most joyful days of her life. Instead, it was a day full of fear - fear for the woman she loved, fear for her son, and fear that she would not be respected as a committed partner and as a mother. 

* * *

Heather and Carson have largely recovered from the delivery that night. But the experience prompted Ashley to make a vow to herself that she would work to chip away at this fear and fight against discriminatory laws and policies in the U.S. government and military. She didn't want anyone to have those feelings of insecurity and uncertainty ever again.

She found an avenue to work toward change through the American Military Partner Association, which formed as a support structure for the partners and spouses of gay and lesbian service members in the U.S. military.

After "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed in September 2011, many people wrongly assumed that gay and lesbian service members and their families would no longer face discrimination by the federal government. But families like Ashley, Heather, and Carson continue to be treated unequally. Through AMPA, Heather and Ashley are able to help other military families get educated and informed about what rights they do and do not have.

Because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government and U.S military are prohibited from respecting legal marriages between same-sex couples. Although Ashley and Heather legally married in Washington, D.C. in November 2012, the federal government does not respect the marriage, which deprives Ashley, Heather, and thousands of same-sex military couples of over 1,100 protections and responsibilities that different-sex couples receive. These include shared health insurance and medical coverage, military identification cards, support from morale and welfare programs, and surviving spouse benefits.

Ashley's documentation remains a constant concern for the couple. The military still does not recognize her as Heather's wife or Carson's mother. Rather, Ashley must abide by the rules of the military's Family Care Plan, which names Ashley as Carson's "caregiver."

"It's basically a glorified name for a nanny," Ashley explained. "I have access to base and the grocery store and some amenities, but my documentation is basically for Carson. I can do things with him or for him, but I can't, for example, go to the gym or take classes. Things I do on base have to be strictly for him. I'm not recognized by the military as his mother."

"When I take him to doctor's appointments, I still have to bring in all of these legal documents saying I'm not his mother but that I have the right to make medical decisions for him," Ashley continued. "Every time, it's like a slap in the face."

* * *

Ashley and Heather face an additional layer of disrespect because they live in North Carolina, where a constitutional amendment prohibits the freedom to marry for same-sex couples and outlaws any alternative mechanisms of family status, including civil union and domestic partnership.

"We used to be able to get car insurance together under a company, and to protect gay and lesbian service members, they would say the service member had a 'cohabitant,'" Ashley explained as one example. "The company didn't refer to the partner as a spouse or anything like that. So for over ten years, I had wonderful insurance under Heather's plan. But when we moved to North Carolina, we had to drop our insurance, because the state doesn't recognize any same-sex couple and doesn't recognize cohabitation."

Some of the couple's discomfort in their home stems from cultural influences and a lack of community acceptance. For example, when the family moved to North Carolina last year, Ashley struggled to find a preschool that would accept Carson.

"Seven of the ten schools I approached basically told me that we weren't welcome because Carson has two moms," Ashley said. "They would say, ‘Oh, we would love to have your son, but you may want to keep your family makeup to yourselves, because it may offend some of our other families.'"

This winter, Ashley made headlines when she applied for membership to the Association of Bragg Officers' Spouses and was rejected because she does not have a military ID card, a military benefit she does not receive because of DOMA. Read more about the developing story HERE. 

* * * 

Ashley and Heather are a normal, loving couple who have stayed together for over 15 years, since November of 1997 when they began dating in Columbus, GA.

They've been fully invested in each other's lives, certain that they will be together forever, since 2001, when Heather was scheduled to be transferred to a different duty location, far away from their home in Georgia, and Ashley decided to move with her.

"I was so in love with her, and she was my best friend, and I knew that there was no way I could be separated from her," Ashley said. "That's when our journey really started."

They've moved around seven times, and in 15 years, they've lived in Georgia, Virginia, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, and even South Korea.

They are expecting a baby girl any day now.

They've even seen the beginnings of the future for same-sex military spouses - in May, Ashley was the first same-sex partner of military personnel invited to the First Lady's annual Mother's Day Tea at the White House.

Throughout all of their trials - as a same-sex military couple living under DADT, as a same-sex couple in the South, and as a same-sex couple standing up against DOMA - they have continually found strength in each other - and in other couples like them who they have connected with through the American Military Partner Association.

* * *

When Ashley thinks back to the day that Carson was born two years ago, she still gets emotional and remembers how terrifying it was to feel insecure and unsupported, with no federal protections to back her up.

Today, she and her family feel similar insecurity because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Until that law is repealed - until married same-sex couples can be treated the same as married different-sex couples - she and her family will continue to face anxiety, insecurity, and disrespect.

Learn more about the so-called Defense of Marriage Act HERE, check out the American Military Partner Association, for which Ashley serves as Director of Family Affairs, HERE, and take a look at Freedom to Marry's joint public education campaign with OutServe-SLDN, Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry, HERE.

UPDATE: On February 11, 2013, the Pentagon announced revisions to some Department of Defense policies that create unfair hardships for same-sex couples and their families, including the issuance of military ID cards. Freedom to Marry continues to work to overturn DOMA, which requires the continuation of other rules that impose additional hardships on military families, including access to shared health coverage and survivor benefits.