When President Barack Obama formally ended "don't ask, don't tell" in July 2011, ending a 17-year ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military, Tracey Cooper-Harris felt liberated about her future as a veteran.
As a sergeant in the U.S. Army, she received more than two dozen medals and commendations during her 12 years of service, which included tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
"Like a lot of other vets, I've had some struggles, including post-traumatic stress, but that's one of the issues that I'm taking care of," she said. While Cooper-Harris struggled with PTSD, she managed to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from California State University, Northridge, and landed a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Los Angeles, where she helps other veterans with disabilities.
Four years ago, Cooper-Harris disclosed her sexual orientation and married longtime partner Maggie Cooper in California, where same-sex marriages were legal under state law. Three days later, voters passed Proposition 8, an initiative that invalidated such marriages.
"We knew there was a possibility that Proposition 8 would not go in our favor, but on that particular day, that was not really on our minds," said Maggie, who met Tracey during a women's rugby match at Occidental College, where she coaches a women's team.
Like the 18,000 same-sex couples who obtained marriage licenses before the ballot initiative went into effect, the couple's marriage is still recognized as legal in California. They are entitled to the same protections as other married couples under state law.
But in 2010, Tracey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, disabling disease that attacks the brain and nervous system and has no cure.
Because the Department of Veteran Affairs determined that the disease is connected to her military service, Tracey says she qualified for disability benefits of about $1,400 a month, which help cover medicine and doctor visits.
In late 2011, Tracey applied for additional disability compensation as a married veteran to help ensure that her spouse had supplemental support.
When the couple received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs denying dependency benefits, based on their marital status, it was a setback in their struggle for same-sex equality. "It hurts and it's really frustrating," Tracey said.