By Emily Starbuck Gerson
We’ve all encountered the persistent stereotype of military couples. The husband wears the uniform, while the wife trails along wherever he goes, dutily volunteering her time and energy on base. She forgoes employment either to stay home and raise kids — or because she can’t find good work due to the frequent moves.
Anne I. Harrington shatters that outdated, heteronormative notion of a military spouse. She’s married to a female Air Force general, Brig. Gen. Brenda Cartier, and she highly respects her wife’s trailblazing career. But Harrington is a trailblazer herself, as one of the few female researchers and professors in the nuclear proliferation space, and she refuses to live in the shadow of her spouse’s career.
The couple met during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), having to navigate forging a relationship in secret — though their careers fortunately gave them excuses to frequent the same events. Once the policy was lifted, the couple could be out and marry, but Harrington faced a new challenge: how to balance the traditional expectations of a high-ranking officer’s spouse while pursuing her own professional ambitions.
Harrington is currently a senior lecturer (equivalent to assistant professor) at Cardiff University in Wales, in the department of politics and international relations. Before the pandemic, she was based in Wales and would return to the U.S. on breaks to be with her wife. Since the pandemic sent everything online, Harrington does her research and lecturing remotely while living full-time with her wife in San Antonio, Texas.
The pair view themselves as a power couple, and while they can’t always physically be together, Harrington says their relationship works due to their mutual respect for each other’s careers and aspirations. She thinks the military’s policies are based on outdated heteronormative models of families, which makes spouse employment even more challenging and ignores the realities of same-sex couples.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed Harrington to learn more about how she manages the outdated expectations of female military spouses, how she and her wife balance their respective groundbreaking careers with their relationship, and why they’re passionate about advocating for the LGBTQ+ military community.
Modern Military Association of America: First, could you give us some background on your professional history and career path?
Anne I. Harrington: I got my PhD in political science at the University of Chicago. When I was going through the program, I became very interested in the issue of nuclear weapons, because they do all sorts of weird things in world politics. At the time, not a lot of people were working on nuclear weapons; we were at the end of the Cold War afterglow and the US/Soviet arms race had declined.
There are a couple of different career pathways that are very typical in the field; one of them is to do a postdoc at Stanford, where there’s a center that looks at arms control and nuclear issues, among other things.
If you’re setting your sights on a career like mine, you either want to go there or a similar center at Harvard. I wanted the Stanford fellowship, because there was a woman named Lynn Eden who had the reputation of an amazing mentor. There were very few women in my field and I wanted to be able to work with her. I got there and it turns out she’s also a lesbian.
At the time, I was not out, and getting to see her be out in that community made me feel like I could do it and make a profession. Having her as an example was really important.
That’s also where I met my spouse, Brenda. She was a graduated squadron commander and had commanded at the group level downrange. She was at that point where they do their senior military education year, and she got her first pick, which was Stanford. It was the first year the center had military officers there, so all of us academics were like, who are these people who don’t have PhDs and what are they doing here?
There were four of them, and I very quickly realized that for these people in their normal lives, it’s hard to get in to see them because their calendars are scheduled in 15 minute-increments. They were there for a year going to classes with more time. I realized they were all fast burners in prestigious positions within the military, so I started asking them all to coffee, and that’s how I met my spouse. It was the best coffee of my life.
But it took a long time to figure out that the other person was gay. She wasn’t out, since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still in effect. Coming out to one another was a very long, iterative process. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell made it so weird.
MMAA: What was that like navigating a new relationship amidst the shadow of DADT?
AIH: When our time at Stanford ended, Brenda went to the Pentagon, and I went to Monterey, California, to do a postdoc at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
We stayed in touch, and I started to go to D.C. to see her. When we first met, DADT was in effect, and that December, they passed legislation to repeal it, but then there was this cooling off period of around nine months once you added everything up. So it wasn’t actually repealed until September of the following year. Just because they say it’s safe doesn’t mean it is, so my wife didn’t come out until after the Supreme Court rulings a couple years later.
In that intervening time, we’d go to events together with some frequency, and it would be Dr. Harrington, and at the time, Col Cartier. We’d attend a lot of events in D.C., where it would be normal for both of us to be there because our professional interests aligned. We were out to a select handful of friends, and some of them hosted events they’d invite us both to, knowing we’d both want to go.
I think a lot of people came up with this kind of thing during DADT, where you relied on other identities in order to function as a couple. So if I ever called her at work, I’d say I’m Dr. Harrington calling for Col. Cartier.
MMAA: I can’t imagine having to hide that core part of your identity.
AIH: Yes; I mean I feel fortunate the way my spouse’s career trajectory went. She came into the military in ‘92, and ‘94 they repealed the restriction on women in combat aircraft and she moved into a combat role.
It’s almost like she rode this wave in her career of this pretty radical transformation in the relationship of the military to sex and gender roles. She’s always been cresting just in time for things to change.
As a squadron commander, she didn’t have a spouse, so she came up with another solution for how she wanted to interact with the spouses. But I think it’s hard to be in command positions and be managing the fact that you’re in the closet. If you are in a relationship, it stresses your relationship, and then on top of it you have to find a way to interact with the spouse community.
Then all of it changed, and she got to come out in a D.C. environment, where it was like this constant party in the streets. We lived down the street from the Supreme Court, and every time something changed, we got to go celebrate it. It was very affirming. I think that momentum helped a lot with the coming out process. We could go into her wing command role with her already feeling very comfortable.
We made a point of opening our home and inviting people over. It’s shocking to me, the number of people who tell us we’re the first gay people they have met. But we have to remember that all the straight people in the Air Force were living under DADT too, so they didn’t know people were gay.
MMAA: How have both of your experiences been since then?
AIH: The Air Force has a very strong evangelical streak in it. Back when my spouse was in wing command, there was another commander who lived on our street, and we all went to the same parties. He was tapped to be promoted to general when he refused to sign the retirement certificate for the husband in a same-sex couple.
He basically ended his career by refusing to do this. Initially, he got taken off his promotion track; the Air Force initially sided with the idea that that it was discriminatory and he wasn’t allowed to do that.
They reversed it later and found he was allowed to do that, because in the end, someone else signed that document. They basically said, well the commander didn’t have to do it, they got someone else to do it, so he can dissent based on religious freedom.
That kind of thing worries me. It was kind of a shock, that these people are perfectly polite to your face but feel that strongly behind your back. When we found out, I assumed when he basically got taken off the command track and disciplined, that it was over. When I found out that he’d fought that decision and won, I was absolutely shocked by that.
MMAA: What a hill to die on! We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people ended up being supportive of my wife when she came out as transgender, but it’s hard to know how people really feel.
AIH: The interesting thing that I found during that time was that many commanders who had transgender Airmen within their squadrons — some of whom who were diehard Fox News watchers — were personally offended by President Trump’s tweet [re-implimenting a transgender service ban].
I was shocked, but I think it’s because their feeling of personal affiliation to their Airmen was more important to them than whatever this ideology is. It was surprising and heartening since that’s not always the case.
My wife and I supported some transgender Airmen throughout that, and for one individual we mentored, we’ve made sure to consistently show up throughout his career.
Sometimes I feel frustrated and would like to see more outspoken advocacy or support of the LGBTQ community from leadership. I think the reason you don’t get that is because there’s a prohibition on being overtly political for military officers, so it’s a challenge when these issues are so clearly politicized for military leadership to take a stand or position.
There are some senior General Officers (GO) at the 3-star level who have taken a stand on diversity more generally and have been working on behalf of that, but I’d like to see more.
There are four out lesbians at the GO level in the Air Force, and there’s one couple in the Air National Guard that I know of. There are approximately 200 GOs in the Air Force, and there aren’t any out gay male generals in the Air Force that I know of. You don’t meet a lot of out gay colonels or senior enlisted men, and I don’t know what that means.
My wife and I have been very forward in terms of trying to not only lead by example, but also do some work to try to create community and be active on issues around, like supporting Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback setting up LIT, the Barrier AnalysisWorking Group.
MMAA: I’d love to ask more about LIT, or the LGBTQ Initiatve Group — a Department of Air Force BAWG that launched in the spring of 2021. Could you tell us more about the group and your involvement with it?
AIH: The BAWG was Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback’s idea; she’s at the Pentagon, so she’s in a world where she’s well-positioned to spearhead something like this. Because it’s an Air Force-level initiative and it requires Air Force leadership endorsement, it’s an official group and you have to fulfill the requirements.
But in the military, every idea also gets socialized first. Gen Lauderback made her way around and talked to a lot of people who she saw as being stakeholders and collected input and opinions, including on whether something like this was needed.
Asking “do you need it?” can seem like an odd question. But it’s a GO-level question, which really is asking, is this the appropriate path forward for this community? What do I need to know to go back to my leadership and advocate for the creation of this group?
It was interesting to think about how 10 years later, the success of the repeal of DADT was precisely the fact that it was a nonevent. The same way with the transgender repeal; there’s no uprising. People take on this new information, say OK, and everything moves forwards.
The fact that it was a nonevent made it appear then that integration happened smoothly. It appeared that there were no issues and that this community didn’t need any kind of support tailored to their needs to be able to have careers and thrive as enlisted and officers in the Air Force. We know that isn’t the case.
All of us have our own stories of things that we wish were different in various ways, and challenges we’ve faced. But it’s really only by creating a space to be able to share those stories and make them actionable in some sense, that you even start to get a sense of the ways in which the LGBTQ community struggles differently within the heteronormative environment of the military than a lot of their peers do.
I think the LIT has done an amazing job of identifying issues that LGBTQ service members and their families are still facing. One of the things that I suspect is that the LGBTQ community has more dual professional couples than hetero couples, and that really hurts your career over time. Not in the sense that you’re overtly discriminated against on the basis of it, but it’s very very difficult to do what you’re doing, and the Air Force asks you to do it.
MMAA: Yes, when my wife and I got married, I was in my early 30s, and fortunately already had a location-independent career working for myself. With that and Tricare, I can go anywhere, but so many spouses lose their career’s state licensure or can’t find local or remote-friendly jobs. They either have to be unemployed or do geo-baching.
AIH: If you’re a dual-career couple, whether you’re mil-to-mil or civilian-to-mil, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have periods of time in your relationship where you’re separated. There are going to be times where you face these decisions and accept that you are going to either have to become a trailing spouse in some way. Or you can refuse the role, but then you will have periods of time where you’re not living together every day. That’s how my spouse and I approach it.
The Air Force insofar as they support civilian spouses who are working, they conceive of it in a heteronormative fashion. All of their programs that are designed to support spouse employment have heternormative assumptions about the trailing spouse built into the program itself.
For example, I found that some of the preferential spouse hiring programs for government civilian jobs are low-paying or entry-level, and they all have location requirements tied to the service member’s orders. That means it only works if you’re the trailing spouse, so the program is basically useless for someone like me, who has an established career and is willing to be in a different location from my spouse for the right job.
Our situation has been one where we basically think of our relationship as a project, and then we evaluate all of our decisions in terms of how that contributes to our project. One of the aspects is the idea that we support one another professionally, in our professional ambitions. And sometimes that means we live in different places.
Now that we’ve been together 10 years, I’ve found that over time I’ve gotten kind of inculturated into the Air Force. Early on, I didn’t have much guilt about the idea that I’d go off and do my work and she’d be at home taking care of everything.
But particularly during wing command, when the expectation is that the spouse will step up and have a lot of leadership responsibility within the community, I started to find myself feeling guilty that I was leaving her at home to do all the work, as if I were shirking my responsibilities. I’d be off in the UK as a professor trying to do calls with the other spouses in Albuquerque.
At some point I was like, wait a minute, I’m not a trailing spouse. They don’t get to make me feel guilty about this. Nobody was actively doing it to me, but I realized I’d absorbed the ethos of it.
You become a bit of a curiosity and people ask questions. They’ll say, “Well if you really had to choose, wouldn’t you just quit your job and follow your spouse?” It’s like there’s some sort of suspicion that deep down, your relationship really operates that way — that the Air Force officer has the real job and your job is somehow the fake job.
MMAA: Absolutely; as someone who entered the military community later in life, I’ve been shocked by how much free labor is expected from female spouses. It’s as though being a military spouse is our only identity or job, and we don’t need to be compensated for our time.
AIH: Yes, I had a really great meeting with Meredith Smith, who works at the national level on spouse advocacy issues at Hiring Our Heroes. I wanted to get some perspective, and the stats showed that around 92-93% of military spouses are women, which is kind of insane when you realize around 20% of people in the Air Force are women.
That tells you something about what’s going on there with the incentives and incentive structures. It’s not that the military is that different when you look at promotion in other fields like academia or law or medicine.
In academia, there’s a very clear finding that women will get promoted at the same rate as their male colleagues as long as they’re single with no dependents. But the minute you factor gendered labor into the equation, they’re all behind men. Women often drop out of the pipeline, and you also often see women drop out of the promotion pipeline in the US military.
That’s a bit of a tangent, but I think it goes back to understanding military family heternomative models, and the fact that those models are in some ways sustained by constant moving. It makes it harder for women spouses who are ambitious in their careers to maintain a career. Out of my contemporaries on this base, I’m the only female GO spouse who works full-time.
I’m not the only one who’s had a profession, but what happens is, people don’t want to goeobach anymore once they have kids. So they have to either do this re-licensure or get a new job. There are very few women who are either willing once they have kids to be a single parent and make it work that way — or by the time you get kids enrolled and you’ve enrolled in everything and gotten a new license, then it’s time to move again. And as you go up in rank, you move more often.
MMAA: How have you overcome these structures for you and your spouse to both have successful careers?
AIH: I write on nuclear nonprofileration, but I do that frequently through a feminist lens. Part of my training in grad school and my ongoing career trajectory is I have a very strong foundation in feminist and queer theory and analysis.
The reason that matters is that I feel like I have an understanding of identity issues. Like think about how some people approach the whole process of coming out. Brenda’s always had a very secure idea of who she is. I think because she had such a validating family life and experience, and the fact that the military is so invalidating wasn’t as difficult for her. But military members are very good at compartmentalizing, and before coming out, she had these two compartments — her gay identity and her military identity — and never shall they meet.
She was now wanting and expecting to crash them together in a way that I think is even more pronounced than in the civilian world. I’ve worked for years at the university that I’m an associate professor at, and I’ve not met the spouses of most of my colleagues. Whereas in the military, when you’re coming out, you’re coming out and your spouse is going to events and public ceremonies with you.
The coming out thing never really stops, but there was a really intense period. I feel like one of the things that was helpful to her along that transition was, there’s a lot of literature and knowledge out there already about understanding queer experience and gender identity.
She’s articulated that I was able to explain to her what she was going through in a larger frame. I think that is one of the factors that has helped her in her career. As in, these particular skill sets interact in a way where my contribution to her career is not just as a spouse in the spouse role.
My contribution is that we have a project and we support one another and our ambitions. We made it through a super intense period after she came out. And I think it’s important to remember the ways in which our professional identities allowed us to navigate DADT.
MMAA: Absolutely, I love looking at it as a joint project rather than you being a spouse along for the ride. When my wife got her current assignment to England, we decided on her applying for the assignment together, and I view it as my opportunity to get to live in England too. For our last question, how do you keep your relationship strong as a dual-career military couple?
AIH: I think this goes back to the idea that our relationship is a project, and that project is more than the sum of its parts. Your relationship has a life and it has a trajectory, and you both need to invest in it.
The way we invest in it is as equals, or co-equals. As people who are both coming to it in a relationship of mutual respect. We always try to concentrate on how our relationship allows us to do things as people that we wouldn’t be able to do as individuals.
Like what you’re talking about — “I get to go to England. I get to have this opportunity partly because I don’t have to worry about health insurance.” That’s an example of this. But on a deeper level, before my spouse was out, and compared to other people of my spouse’s generation, I lived under DADT for a very short period of time.
I’m not going to compare my experience to theirs, but it was very easy to get caught in this focus on what we couldn’t do. We couldn’t be in public together. I used to intentionally carry something in my hand, like a water bottle or bag, to remind myself not to touch her in public and give us away with overly familiar body language.
One of the tools we used to cope with it at the time was by starting something we called ‘the list.’ The list was all the things we could do together. It started out with really basic stuff, like support each other professionally, play golf together. As our relationship matured, we would take it out, especially if we were going through something difficult in our relationship.
We’d take it out and look at it, because it also became something where it said things like, protect the relationship from yourself. Try to bring your best self to the relationship. What can we do to make things stronger?
If we went through a hard time, we’d take it out and either add things that we’d learned or talk about how as a reminder, we aren’t doing this, we aren’t protecting the relationship from ourselves. It sounds like a weird thing to say, but because a relationship sometimes feels like a safe place, it can be easy to place a lot of stress on it, and you really need to find other ways to deal with some things.
Then, as we felt like we could come out and be married, we added things like “get married” to it. Once we were out, we could put things like “hold hands.” It’s the foundational document of our project. We used it as our wedding vows.