For gay couples hoping for a military burial, the fight for love doesn’t end with death

At Oregon’s Willamette National Cemetery, lines of marble rise row by row over acres of living greenery. Retired Lt. Col. Linda Campbell of the Air Force knew the sight well. She chose her quayside apartment nearby to see from a distance where her wife was silently waiting for her.

Nancy Lynchild died of cancer in 2012. It was too soon. Too early for Campbell, who has lived the next six years without the love of her life. Too soon for a nation that has yet to legalize same-sex marriage by federal authorities, leaving Campbell with little appeal when Veterans Affairs rejected her request for Lynchild’s burial in the same sacred territory to which other military spouses were entitled.

Still, Campbell fought. Oregon state leaders helped persuade Veterans Affairs to allow Lynchild’s remains to be buried in Willamette. When Campbell died in 2018, her ashes were buried with her wife and sealed behind a stone carved with a sandhill crane, symbol of their immortal love.

Campbell was the first gay veteran to secure the burial right for his spouse, and the couple were the first same-sex military couple to be buried together at a US national cemetery.

Campbell put his legacy into words in 2013: “Our nation will know, and anyone who passes here will know that we lovingly, proudly and legally married and that we deserved the right to be here in this sacred space.”

The right to military burial for gay spouses was guaranteed nationwide with the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, but only a handful of famous same-sex military couples are buried in 172 national cemeteries in the U.S. – areas reserved primarily for the military. members and selected family.

For most, this honor has been hard won by courage and unmistakable love.

Brad Avakian was one of the Oregon State leaders who helped Lynchild secure a place for her wife in Willamette. During this time, he met a couple whom he describes as “remarkable.”

“The word ‘fight’ is used so often in politics that it loses its relevance,” he told CNN. “But it was a fight.”

Avakian is currently a professor at Willamette University and vice president of Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. When he first met Campbell and Lynchild in 2012, he was the Oregon State Commissioner of Labor. For Campbell, he said, her military service and marriage are the two most important things in her life. She wanted to be buried in Willamette, where her veteran father was buried. But she also wanted to be with the woman she loved.

“Linda has expressed consternation for so long that she and her father have devoted their entire careers to this country, and this country will not consider her human in return,” Avakian said.

“She’s gone through the don’t ask don’t talk era. She had gone through everything a woman had to go through in the military. And this final fight resembled this entire era again.

Avakian said his repeated appeals to then-President Barack Obama went unheeded. It was Eric Shinseki, the former US Veterans Secretary, who developed the Campbell case and eventually granted her the waiver she needed for Lynchild’s burial.

Avakian and his wife then remained close to Campbell. She showed them the apartment she had bought on the other side of the river. When she died, Avakian spoke at her funeral. He said there is no glamor or bragging here. Just a feeling of warmth, celebration. Two people together again, as it should be.

“They were two of the most loving, compassionate people you would ever want to meet,” he said. “Linda had a disciplined and determined military side to her, coupled with a loving, compassionate outlook on the world. It was evident in everything she did and in her relationship. “

At the same time, Campbell was fighting for his wife’s memory in Oregon, Madelynn Taylor was fighting a similar battle in Idaho. A longtime LGBTQ activist and navy veteran, she met her wife Jeanne Mixner in 1995. It was love at first sight. They went to church together and made a name for themselves in their community in Boise until Mixner’s death in 2012.

Taylor wanted Mixner’s remains buried in a military location where she herself hoped to rest one day, but no amount of influence or anger could convince the Idaho Department of Veterans Affairs to allow it. At the time, the Defense of Marriage Act meant that same-sex spouses could be buried together in such places only if they lived in states where their marriage was declared legal. Idaho was not such a state of affairs, and Taylor’s lawsuit against state VA was dismissed.

It wasn’t until 2014, when the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted in Idaho, that the Mixner site at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery was secured.

Taylor’s legitimate objection was a hallmark of her activism, her sister Karen Hicks said.

“She has always been a problem solver,” Hicks told the Idaho Statesman. “If there is a will, there is a way with it.”

When Taylor took the trial, Hicks said she asked her sister if she thought she was taking too much on herself.

“She said,” No, when you feel hard enough about something, you’ll make it work. “

Taylor was a regular feature of Pride events and other gatherings in her area. When she died in 2021, she was mourned as the mother of the movement, a wife whose dedication will be written in history and in stone.

The resting place at the national cemetery is a great honor for military veterans who were denied many same-sex couples until 2015. However, gay veterans have always fought for their right to be included and celebrated in such places.

Since 1980, LGBTQ activists have attended memorial services at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, the largest and most famous national cemetery in the country. Yet among the 400,000 graves there are no known military couples of the same sex.

Near Arlington, Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, is a one-of-a-kind LGBTQ section that honors military members and national leaders who fought for equality and dignity. Their tombstones scream in silence: “Happy is good” reads the plaque under the grave of Frank Kamena, a cult activist, government official and veteran of World War II. The gleaming, nameless marble tombstone marks the tomb of Leonard Matlovich, one of the first LGBTQ veterans to protest against the military’s prohibition of homosexuality, as belonging to a “Vietnam Gay Veteran.”

“When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men,” we read on his stone, “and a discharge for loving one.”

Reckoning to death not only for their service, but for their true self was a legitimate quarrel for those veterans who served their country despite the criminalization and oppression of their identities.

Today, in a slightly brighter future, this torch is held high by couples such as Campbell and Lynchild, Taylor and Mixner, and the Reverend Lowell Worthington and his husband Ken Sims.

Worthington, an army veteran who served in the Korean War, died in 2017 and was buried at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. When his husband Ken Sims died in 2021, they became the first same-sex couple to be buried there.

Reverend Erin Wyma of the Cathedral of Hope presided over the Sims funeral. He remembers a couple who attended church since the 1990s as strong, admired people in the congregation. She said they love people and have held parties in their home for years.

When Worthington died, the community came together to support Sims in his grief. They were family after all.

“Family can be such a burdened word for LGBTQ people,” said Wyma. “So many have difficult relationships with their own families. That is why the chosen family is so important. “

The day when Wyma helped the lying Sims relax with her husband was a very hot one. The family – chosen and not only – was present in large numbers. She said the military personnel at the Dallas-Fort Worth Cemetery were just adorable. In fact, it was only after the service that she realized the true significance of the event.

Right now, under the scorching sun of Dallas, she was just grateful for remembering them for what they were, and for naming the love they chose for each other.

“We were in a military place. People in uniform and guards were nearby. And I felt free to talk about their time together, ”she said. “It was a privilege to be able to talk openly about how much they loved each other.”

With time, more and more such couples are doomed to find a similar room together. When they are buried, the tireless battles of their ancestors will give them total respect – as veterans and as a family.