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Army spouses club offers 'special guest membership' for same-sex wife

Ashley Broadway, left, married her 15-year companion, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, in November — their first chance to hold a formal ceremony after the 2011 repeal of
Ashley Broadway, left, married her 15-year companion, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, in November — their first chance to hold a formal ceremony after the 2011 repeal ofCourtesy of Ashley Broadway

An on-base club for Fort Bragg spouses extended a "special guest membership" Thursday night to the lesbian spouse of an Army lieutenant colonel, marking another twist in a six-week-long saga that prompted a pro-gay Marine Corps directive and that has drawn the attention of gay and lesbian activists nationwide. 

The Association of Bragg Officers’ Spouses (ABOS) offered Ashley Broadway an invitation to join the group as a “special guest,” but not as a full member — meaning she can attend all club functions but cannot vote on club matters — according to an email to NBC News by the association’s board. 

Broadway immediately rejected the overture, calling it “extremely demeaning.” Broadway married her 15-year companion, Lt. Col. Heather Mack, in November — their first chance to hold a formal ceremony after the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the policy that kept gays from openly serving in the military. The couple has a 2-year-old son and Mack is due to give birth to their second child on Sunday. 

“I correlate ‘guest membership’ to saying, ‘Heather, you can be gay and be in the military but we’re not going to treat your spouse as equal.’ I can be in this club but I can’t have full membership?  That’s not acceptable,” Broadway said in an interview with NBC News Thursday night. “I’m either going to be a member or not. I applied to be a full member with a vote.

“I am declining their offer.”

In a statement mass emailed Thursday evening, the Bragg officers club said some information reported in the media about Broadway’s membership application “has been false or misleading,” including assertions that the board changed its bylaws after Broadway applied.

“In mid-November, ABOS received an inquiry from ... Ashley Broadway, requesting information on the eligibility for membership in ABOS of a same sex spouse. As this was a case of first impression, she was told that such a request would need to be studied,” read the club’s statement. 

Since going public with her story, Broadway has maintained that she received a phone call during the first week of December from a club representative, informing her that Mary Ring, the group’s president, had rejected her application because Broadway does not have a military spouse identification card. (The U.S. military does not recognize same-sex marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act and does not offer benefits — or ID cards — to same-sex spouses.) Broadway also serves as director of family affairs at the American Military Partner Association, a fact mentioned by ABOS leaders in their explanation of the events. 

“ABOS’ membership application does not explicitly require a valid (Department of Defense) ID Card but some member benefits and events do require a valid DoD ID Card,” the club’s statement continued. “ABOS received Ms. Broadway’s letter requesting reconsideration on Friday, December 7 and by Monday, December 10 a similar letter to the ABOS President was published on her organization’s website.

“ABOS’ by-laws were never changed retroactively in an attempt to exclude anyone. The ABOS Board’s bi-annual review of the by-laws began in July 2012, at which time the by-laws were removed from the ABOS website and continue to be under review,” the statement said. “Since the by-laws were written and adopted well before the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, the term ‘Spouse’ is not defined.”

In a separate email to NBC News, the club’s board maintained that Broadway was never rejected by the Bragg social club because “a formal application was never filed,” and that she simply had inquired about membership eligibility of a same sex spouse and was told the club would need “time to look at the issue.” 

The "special guest" invitation to Broadway sparked criticism and skepticism Thursday night from Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, a Washington, D.C.-based resource and support network for lesbian and gay military families. 

“So that leaves the question of: If the bylaws and the application do not explicitly require a valid DoD ID card, why is she still being denied full membership?” Peters asked. “What do certain unnamed ‘events’ requiring a valid DoD ID card have to do with anything?"

Before the ABOS website was made fully password protected and before the group took down its Facebook page – both done after initial reports of Broadway’s membership battle surfaced – the American Military Partner Association took screenshots of both sites. The ABOS website and Facebook page “were changed retroactively in order to add the requirement of an ID card after Ashley applied for membership,” according to Peters. Those screenshots were shared Thursday with NBC News. 

As of Thursday night, the website was fully accessible and no longer password protected.

“It's fantastic that they have finally contacted Ashley after a month of silence, but if the ABOS mission is to support all military families, why are they continuing to deny same-sex military spouses full membership?” Peters asked. “Offering ‘guest membership’ to Ashley is like offering her ‘second-class membership status.’ There is no valid reason why she should not be offered full membership as outlined in the organization's bylaws.”

Citing the Broadway flap, the U.S. Marine Corps on Dec. 9 issued a branch-wide directive that same-sex spouses be allowed to participate in spouses clubs at all Marine bases. 

On Wednesday, Pentagon officials said they support a decision by leaders at Fort Bragg not to intervene in the matters of its on-base spouses club. 

The legal basis for the Pentagon’s stance is a Department of Defense “instruction” drafted in 2008, three years before the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, a Pentagon spokesman said. That directive ensures that “non-federal entities” operating on U.S. military installations don’t discriminate on the basis of “race, color, creed, sex, age, disability, or national origin.” There is no mention of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Broadway, meanwhile, has been nominated for the Fort Bragg Military Spouse of the Year award, a precursor to the Army Military Spouse of the Year award and — perhaps, ultimately — the 2013 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year award, which represents all branches. She is one of about 10 Bragg spouses nominated for the award from that base. Online voting for the base-level award takes place Jan. 22. 

Related: Pentagon opts not to intervene in ban of lesbian by Fort Bragg spouses club

Related: Marine Corps orders spouses clubs to allow same-sex members

Related: Same-sex wife of Army officer banned from Fort Bragg spouses club