When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had defined marriage as between a man and woman, it sent ripples throughout the country. In the military, it had particularly far-reaching consequences. Between it and the removal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which had allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the military to serve only if they did so without telling anyone about their sexual orientation, the climate for those members and their families has changed dramatically.
LGB people can now be open about their sexual orientations, and their spouses have access to federal and military benefits. According to Unitarian Universalists serving in the military, there have been few issues.
“As far as DOMA and my experience of things, it’s had absolutely no effect. It was like, ‘No duh, and why weren’t we doing this before? Of course we should give the same benefits to same-sex couples who are married,’” said Chaplain (Captain) David Pyle, a reserve chaplain and the assistant minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, Calif. “For most of my soldiers, especially the younger soldiers, it’s a non-issue. Most of the energy around it is in the chaplain corps, and that’s just sad.”
Military chaplains have been affected, too, including the 12 UU ministers currently serving as either active duty or reserve chaplains. The Unitarian Universalist Association has repeatedly affirmed its welcome and support for people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, and UU military chaplains follow guidance from the association. Specific guidance given UU chaplains urges them to serve LGB people in an inclusive and welcoming manner.
UU chaplains are now able to more easily support soldiers who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual and to help provide services for them and their families. (For transgender persons, things are still complicated; those who have had gender reassignment surgery are not allowed to serve on the grounds that they have had major surgery, and even those who have not had surgery often face difficult situations.)
“The big difference is in my ability to be much more open myself about what my stance is,” said Chaplain (Captain) George Tyger, an active duty UU military chaplain. “As a UU minister, I represent the Unitarian Universalist Association in the military. Before [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] went down, I had to tiptoe around the issue, and now I don’t. I can say, ‘This is how I feel; I’m 100 percent affirming.’”
Not all military chaplains share Tyger’s affirming stance. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, issued guidelines through its North American Mission Board for its military chaplains that they are to follow strictly the denomination’s stance, which states that homosexuality is a sin.
Traditionally, the military chaplains have affirmed a pluralistic approach to their work. Chaplains cover for each other as needed, and if a chaplain cannot adequately serve a military member, they refer him or her to a chaplain who can, so Southern Baptists could refer LGB persons to another chaplain. But though the guidelines given by the Southern Baptists specifically indicate support for the military chaplains’ pluralistic approach, they also forbid Southern Baptist chaplains from “conducting a service jointly with a chaplain, contractor, or volunteer who personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct.”
“That level of restriction throws a monkey wrench in the whole pluralistic cooperative sense of the chaplains,” the Rev. Sarah Lammert said.
Lammert, the UUA’s director of ministries and faith development, is also the association’s endorser of military chaplains, the person who gives clearance for fellowshipped UU ministers to serve as chaplains.
Marriage retreat programs for members of the military and their spouses have been a point of tension. The Army’s program is called Strong Bonds, though each service branch has a similar program. With lesbian, gay, and bisexual members now able to serve openly, they and their spouses are eligible to be involved in the program as one of the benefits of their service. That’s been a problem for some chaplains from denominations that do not affirm LGB people.
“These endorsers come out and say that their people are not allowed to be part of an event that includes gay couples, and that means I get this panicky phone call from senior chaplains who say, would I put aside what I’m doing and facilitate these events?” Pyle said. “I still have a problem with Strong Bonds and these chaplains. I’m not going to be your answer to this problem. The answer to chaplains who can’t serve LGB people is not to overwork chaplains who can.”
Tyger frequently leads the Strong Bonds events. He says he has been able to be a voice for UU values in his work there. As a brigade-level chaplain, Tyger is involved in meetings with many other chaplains and leaders. At one meeting, he recalled they were discussing how best to integrate same-sex couples into Strong Bonds. Some chaplains advocated for a separate event for same-sex couples.
“We tried that; it’s called separate but equal,” Tyger said. “I have an ability now to be more vocal about the issue, and it directly affects the well-being of soldiers and families. The commanders I work with don’t care if a soldier is gay or straight. They want to know he’s going to do his job and that his family will be taken care of. If the soldier’s female, and she has a wife, the question is: How do we take care of their family?”
Tyger and Lammert both said that greater representation from liberal voices in military chaplaincy is needed. Lammert said that two chaplains from more conservative denominations have approached her about pursuing UU credentialing so that they can serve LGB people and live out their faith more authentically.
“We need more progressives to enter the military chaplaincy; that’s why we’re at the issues we’re at right now, because mainline and progressive denominations abandoned military chaplaincy in the 1960s,” Tyger said.
Lammert and endorsers from other denominations that support LGB persons are scheduled to meet with the chief of chaplains from each of the services in January to talk about ways their chaplains can provide support to LGB persons in the military.
Correction 12.24.13: An earlier version of this story did not identify David Pyle as a reserve chaplain and left out his position as an assistant parish minister.