June 10, 2021

Tips for LGBT military spouses



If you, or someone you love, are an LGBT service member, then there are unique challenges to being in the military.  In this podcast episode, Elizabeth Polinsky interviews Dr. Kati McNamara on what it is like to be an LGBT couple in the military and how spouses can support each other.  



  • Brief history of LGBT Military experiences
  • Summary of research on experiences of LGBT service members
  • Discussion of unique couple and family experiences of LGBT military families
  • Tips for LGBT couples/families navigating military life


1.  Introduction to Dr. McNamara:

Dr. McNamara is a social scientist, a researcher, and a social worker in the Air Force. She does clinical work, research, and teaching for the Air Force. For her Ph.D. dissertation, she was able to partner on DoD projects happening at her university which looked at the experiences of LGBT service members after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. ​

So many people go to therapy for troubled marriages”

Dr. Kati McNamara

2. A History Lesson:

LGBT folks are less prevalent that cis/straight folks in the military. In the 1900’s there were explicit policies that forbid LGBT individuals from serving in the military due to thinking different sexual orientations and gender identities were a mental health disorder (something that has since been scientifically disproven).

In the 1990s there was a compromise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”–it allowed people who were LGBT to serve without being immediately kicked out. During that time, it is suspected that 13,000 LGBT people were kicked out of the military. In 2013, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, meaning that people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, could now serve openly. Individuals who are transgender have had more of a roller coaster with policies over the past few years. Under the Obama administration in 2015, transgender individuals were able to serve opening in the military. This was then banned by the Trump administration, and then allowed again under the Biden administration.


Even though people could serve opening in the military regardless of their sexual orientation starting in 2013, it wasn’t until 2015 that same sex military couples have been respected as legit couples. Meaning that prior to 2015 and the federal rule recognizing same-sex marriage, spouses couldn’t get an military ID’s, health insurance, go to the commissary on their own, or pick up their kids from school on the military base. According to Dr. McNamara, “It’s an emotional and logistical problem.”Between 2013 and 2015, several support groups formed to support same sex spouses: 

“If they hear a red flag–someone saying something negative about LGBT people–they code that as this person is probably not safe.”

Dr. Kati McNamara 

3. Unique LGBT Couple and Family Military Experiences:

The ripples of all of this is what Dr. McNamara and her colleagues researched. When though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had been repealed a few years prior, when Dr. McNamara signed up for the military, her paperwork to sign up still had forms saying that she wouldn’t be in a same-sex relationship. According to Dr. McNamara, there is a lot of mental math that people who are LGBT do in looking for green flags that other people are safe to disclose their sexual orientation to.  And they have to do this every time they PCS and move. 

In her and her colleagues research, they found that life is better after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and everyone is generally glad that same sex marriage is recognized, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. However, they also found that people who are LGBT often still wonder about anti-LGBT views at the individual level and about how military culture has not caught up with the policies. 

In the military, a lot of the resources for couples are with the chaplain. But historically there have been a lot of anti-LGBT chaplains in the military. There has also been a long history of trauma from the church toward LGBT individuals. This then puts a lot of couples off from considering going to the chaplain for help with their relationship. This experience of discrimination is related to physical and mental health problems–something called minority stress. There are between 75K – 100K LGBT service members, but LGBT folks have high attrition from the military because of minority stress and lack of acceptance. 

Young LGBT people are looking for someone at least 1 rank higher than them to be out in order to be out.”

Dr. Kati McNamara 

4. Tips for LGBT Couples and Civilian Spouses:

  1. If your spouses is experiencing out-group status, know that it is real and painful. 
  2. Make sure to find any community that is openly accepting. 
  3. Know there are  a lot of welcoming people in the military. 
  4. If you are comfortable being out, be out.  

Liz’s Useful Links: 

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Thanks for Listening!


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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.


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