Families Matter

How North Carolina’s conservative values jeopardize its LGBT community.

by 

October 2, 2012
Ashley Broadway (left) and her partner, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, live near Fort Bragg, N.C., where they have no legal protections as a same-sex couple. Photo courtesy of Broadway and Mack.

Ashley Broadway and her partner have been together for 15 years. Their 2-year-old son, Carson, was born while the family lived in El Paso, Texas, and they’re expecting a baby girl in January. Broadway, a former public school teacher, is a stay-at-home mom. All three live with their three dogs in a middle-class neighborhood near Fort Bragg, N.C., although they are ready to move next year — as they do every few years, when the Army calls them elsewhere.

But the family is vulnerable. Broadway and her partner, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, are a same-sex couple in a state that offers them no legal protections as spouses, no second-parent adoption to give Broadway parental rights to their children without nullifying Mack's, no domestic partnership status to validate their relationship under the law. Like the 27,250 cohabiting same-sex couples who registered in North Carolina during the 2010 census, Broadway and Mack are legally bound only by documents they have created with their lawyers. They drafted their wills and powers of attorney in Mack’s home state of Illinois. In North Carolina — where Amendment One, ratified in May, defined a marriage between one man and one woman as the only legal domestic union — the law does not recognize Broadway, Mack and their son as a family.

A resident who lives near Camp Lejeune says that the soldiers she knows worry that in the wake of a backlash they would not be able “to jump back into the closet fast enough."

And so when Mack deployed to Kuwait last September, Broadway had a plan:

"It was either go to Illinois or go to Texas," if Mack were injured or killed abroad, Broadway recalls through tears. "Because I just did not feel, even though we had the wills, even though we had possessions, in my gut, I said, 'There is no way that I'll be taken care of.’ I was prepared. I had enough money in the bank, I had resources. I was ready."

North Carolina’s conservative, military-dominated atmosphere hasn’t been ideal for a same-sex couple, according to the pair. “From the moment I have arrived here, it has been climbing mountains, moving barriers,” says Mack, who became pregnant soon after returning from Kuwait in March.

North Carolina has liberal metropolitan regions, including Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Asheville, with large LGBT populations. Two cities, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, registered local same-sex unions from the mid-90s until Amendment One passed in May. The 198 accredited colleges and universities in the state draw massive young adult populations, which tend to skew left on social issues. In September, Charlotte was home to the Democratic National Convention, where party members ratified a platform that included support for marriage equality for the first time.

But like a third of the state’s residents, Mack and Broadway live outside the metropolitan areas. In rural regions, a combination of conservative religious and social beliefs keeps LGBT communities from blossoming. In military cities, such as Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, or Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on the coast, attitudes often drive people underground — or to other states.

Some service members are not certain that recent changes in policy, including the elimination of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” will stick. A resident from near Camp Lejeune says that the soldiers she knows worry that in the wake of a backlash they would not be able “to jump back into the closet fast enough.” And although official policy protects soldiers from being discharged for being gay, anti-LGBT attitudes among troops could make life difficult for soldiers trying to live openly.

Soldiers Left Behind

The lasting fear spread in the armed forces by DADT frustrates Mack, especially in connection to her work at OutServe, an LGBT organization for active-duty military. Fort Bragg, with 55,000 military personnel, is one of the largest U.S. Army bases in the world. It is known as a haven for families and career soldiers. Those stationed at the base often request time extensions so they can remain there for much longer than their initial two-year assignments. But for LGBT soldiers, the longer they stay at Fort Bragg, the more they risk coming out, intentionally or inadvertently, to the wrong person.

In the year since the DADT repeal, military groups around the country have embraced LGBT service people. In June, the Pentagon held its first gay pride event for soldiers, and during San Diego’s LGBT Pride parade in July, the Department of Defense for the first time allowed military members to march in their uniforms. Hundreds joined the parade. In August, 26-year veteran Tammy S. Smith became the Army’s first openly gay officer of flag rank when she was promoted to brigadier general.

I pointed at them and said, 'If I sleep with you, but I don't sleep with the other two, I'm a bitch,'" she says. "'If I sleep with all of you, I'm a slut. And if I sleep with none of you, I'm a lesbian.” – Major Heather Mack, on being questioned about her sexuality under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"

The first academic study of the policy change, published in September, found no negative consequences among forces post-DADT. But at Fort Bragg, Mack says, the effects of the former policy are still evident in military culture. Some LGBT soldiers worry coming out will prompt commanding officers to give them poor reviews or invite harassment from homophobic soldiers, she says. “Not only do you have a state that you're living in that has no respect for you and your family, but then you have the military on top of it that says, 'Well, it's okay for you to be gay and it's okay for you to be in the military, but we're not going to do anything to help you out,'" she says.

Fort Bragg spokesman Col. Kevin Arata told the Equal Media Project troops at the base have followed all Department of Defense protocol regarding DADT since the repeal. According to the Department of Defense website, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps service members began training in February 2011 to prepare for the end of the law.

“I can tell you that we have, and are, supporting the Department of Defense’s policy of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, and that we have completed all required training as part of that repeal,” Arata said in an email. “Whatever requirements were set forth from the DoD, we met.”

Studies have suggested that LGBT teens and adults are more likely than their non-LGBT peers to try to kill themselves, and troops at Fort Bragg joined the rest of the Army in suicide prevention training in September 16. Still, Mack says she worries about LGBT soldiers who need different support services than the general population. “These aren't things that the senior leaders at [Fort Bragg] are thinking about,” she says. Mack and Broadway say their friends stationed in more liberal areas, like California, have felt welcomed by their neighborhoods since the DADT repeal. Others at Fort Bragg have begun to speak out about the need for greater change.

In a September piece for OutServe Magazine commemorating the repeal’s anniversary, Sgt. Mark Mazzone of the North Carolina Army National Guard writes that the expectation that LGBT soldiers would jump out of the closet post-DADT was “a false assumption by most standards. The repeal didn’t mean gay pride ribbons, rainbows, glitter, and the onset of insanity.”

‘Figure Out What Your Fantasy Is … And I’ll Oblige’

Mack and Broadway have their own stories about life under the old policy. Army officials investigated Mack three times while DADT was in place, although no one ever reported her relationship with Broadway. During the first investigation, she remembers, three of her commanding officers, all men, called her into a room and reported an allegation that she was sleeping with a female Army chaplain. She truthfully denied the relationship but was caught off-guard when they asked her for an official statement on the spot. 

"I pointed at them and said, 'If I sleep with you, but I don't sleep with the other two, I'm a bitch,'" she says. "'If I sleep with all of you, I'm a slut. And if I sleep with none of you, I'm a lesbian. Figure out what your fantasy is, figure out what direction you want me to go, and I'll oblige.' [Then I] saluted and did an about-face and walked out."

But unlike many soldiers, Mack never intended to make the military her career, and so the threat of expulsion under DADT did not deter her from building her family. “I always told myself that, when I'm not having fun, I'll get out," she says. "And if the military forced me out, then the military forced me out. Oh, well. I still have my whole life ahead of me. I'm not worried about it.”

Conservative attitudes toward the gay community shake even those LGBT families who are not in the military. Angel Roberts and Storm Silvermane, who live just outside Fayetteville with their 11-year-old daughter, moved there to be near relatives stationed at Fort Bragg, but had difficulty finding a neighborhood where they fit as an LGBT couple. Roberts is bisexual and Silvermane is a transgender man.

“For the first three or four years that we lived here, we thought we were the only alternative family in Fayetteville,” Silvermane says. “The youngest one [their adult son and daughter have left home] was having trouble meeting friends whose parents were welcoming and accepting, so that whole idea that we must be the only ones here in Fayetteville kept growing.” 

They have had brushes with violence. A stranger once threw a beer bottle at Silvermane’s truck on the highway, possibly targeting the marriage equality sticker on the back. They heard that a transgender woman had been beaten to death behind a local convenience store in the area just weeks after they moved to Fayetteville. 

“That fear, of somebody is either going to take it out on my kids or grab me in the dark someday, is always in the back of my head,” Silvermane says. “But you get to the point of where it’s like, no matter what you do, somebody’s going to come after you for something. And unless you’re hiding in your closet, hiding in a house, and living that straight, narrow, holier-than-thou kind of personality, you’re never going to be happy and you’re never going to really feel safe.”

Before he came out as transgender, Silvermane lived with a partner in a small town in Kansas, where he says he felt more at home than he ever expected. The move to Fayetteville, a city with a similar political climate, was all the more startling in comparison.

“I had more acceptance in that town than we've ever had here from the straight community,” he says. “We were the only alternative couple in this little town [in Kansas], but the school knew us, the teachers talked to us, neighbors interacted with us.”

When they eventually decided to seek out families like theirs in Fayetteville, Silvermane says, they were surprised to hear previous attempts at organizing the local LGBT community had faltered after only a few months. Undeterred, in August 2011 they formed the Alliance Fayetteville-Sandhills Region, known as the Alliance, to give LGBT people a way to organize and educate the larger community about their issues.

“We came to the realization that there actually is a community here, but there is no support, there is no advocacy,” Silvermane says.

Almost a year later, they say the Alliance has survived in part because of Amendment One, which rallied the LGBT community and its allies. In July, the group hosted Fayetteville’s first Gay Pride Week with the help of a local church. In the coming years, Silvermane and Roberts say they hope to expand the Alliance to include other regional chapters and, if they raise the funds, a community center.

They plan to hold a wedding ceremony that their 11-year-old has been bugging them about since Silvermane proposed in July 2007. Although they could drive five hours north to Washington, D.C. to marry now, they have decided to wait until Silvermane’s legal gender transition is complete and they can get a marriage certificate in their own state — where they will finally be, legally, a family.

“I already have that commitment with him,” Roberts says. “I don’t need a ceremony to give me that. For me, that marriage is recognition outside of us. We’re not going to get that here. Not now.”

The Other Mother

Unlike Silvermane and Roberts, Broadway and Mack don’t anticipate being able to marry any time soon. After all, they're both women. The move to North Carolina, where same sex marriage has been banned, complicated their plans. Their car insurance provider, which had long covered Broadway as Mack’s cohabitant, could not continue to do so under North Carolina state law. As a soldier, Mack is generally exempt from registering her vehicles every time she’s assigned to a new state. But because Broadway also drives, they had to pay for new North Carolina tags.

They struggled to find a doctor who would allow Broadway to bring Carson in for appointments, despite legal directives saying she was his guardian. Preschools told them they could enroll Carson only if they did not talk about their relationship with the other children’s families. Because they are not married, Broadway is denied the military dependent status that would grant her health insurance as well as base access. Instead, she is registered as Carson’s “caregiver,” which gives her access to a selection of services on post, including the commissary and gym. The denial of her role as Carson’s other mother stings in a way she never anticipated.

“That fear, of somebody is either going to take it out on my kids or grab me in the dark someday, is always in the back of my head.” – Storm Silvermane, a transgender man from outside Fayetteville

The differences between Broadway and a married soldier’s spouse were especially painful during Mack’s deployment to Kuwait, the couple says. Mack met with the Fort Bragg family support group before she left in order to provide Broadway’s contact information. No one from the group reached out, not even during Hurricane Irene. Simple trips to the commissary caused anxiety, as employees hassled Broadway to the point of tears.

“You name it, we've been through it,” Broadway says. “Haven't I earned my ID? Come on. Get with the program.”

During the deployment, Broadway began her work with the American Military Partner Association, eventually joining the group’s national steering committee. In May, she represented AMPA at a Mother’s Day Tea hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, the first time to her knowledge LGBT military partners have been openly invited to tea at the White House. Mack has continued her activism as well, working with OutServe and trying to plan a meeting with the commanding officers at Fort Bragg to discuss the issues LGBT soldiers are facing on the base.

Since Mack’s return, they’ve enjoyed being a couple without the constraints of the old policy. They’ve even started making friends in the cul-de-sac where other parents used to call their children inside when they took Carson out to play.

Still, they say they’re looking forward to their next assignment, which they hope will send them to a more LGBT-inclusive environment.

“It's been one thing after another,” Broadway says. “There are some really good people in North Carolina, both straight and gay. But I will tell you, if a moving truck pulled up in our front door tomorrow, I would get this place packed up and ready to go.”

Julia Haskins contributed reporting. An initial version of this story spelled Lt. Col. Heather Mack's name incorrectly; Medill Equal Media Project regrets the error.