Guard your heart

A same-sex couple in Reno enrolled in spouse benefits through the Nevada Air National Guard

Deena and Kim Bledsaw at home with their dogs, Bella and Precious.

Deena and Kim Bledsaw at home with their dogs, Bella and Precious.

Photo By Allison Young

One afternoon in May, Kim Bledsaw was at a Port of Subs shop, buying a sandwich. Her phone signaled that she’d received a private message on Facebook. The message was from Deena Mc Devitt, an acquaintance she’d known for a few years and liked, but didn’t know very well. The message said something to the effect of, “Hey, I heard you’re going through some stuff. If you ever need somebody to talk to, give me a call.”

Bledsaw had recently ended a relationship and was touched by the friendly gesture.

“Coming out of a break-up, I figured it was a good time to start getting in touch with friends and becoming better friends,” says Bledsaw. “Instead of sitting there whining about losing my partner, I’m going to start hanging out with people.”

Bledsaw rode her motorcycle home, and, before even digging into her sandwich, called Mc Devitt.

“This was at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Bledsaw. “I didn’t eat my sandwich until almost 11. … But you know what? It was a conversation you didn’t want to stop.”

They started talking, and before either one knew what had happened, hours had gone by. Two months later, Bledsaw and Mc Devitt drove over the hill to be married in Auburn, Calif., where same-sex marriage, per a then-recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, is now legal. As part of their marriage, Deena took Bledsaw’s last name.

And now, Deena is one of the first Nevada spouses in a same-sex marriage to receive benefits from the U.S. military. Both Deena and her teenage daughter, Cheyenne, receive medical, dental and vision coverage from the Nevada Air National Guard, where Kim is a non-commissioned officer in Civil Engineer Squadron, based at the Reno Air National Guard Base attached to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

On the home front

It’s a strange situation: Same-sex marriages are still not recognized by the state of Nevada. But, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision this spring striking down Congress’s Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the federal government, including the military, recognizes same-sex marriages performed in states where such unions are legal per state law, like California (now that the court also declared that state’s notorious Proposition 8 unconstitutional). The Department of Defense announced in August that it would begin offering benefits to the same-sex spouses of military personnel.

“As far as I know, we’re the first ones for the Nevada Air National Guard,” says Kim.

“It’s critical, given our current status now of constantly deploying into foreign countries,” says Konrad Delger, a senior enlisted member in the National Guard and formerly Bledsaw’s supervisor. “If I was killed in the line of duty, my wife would get survivor benefits. This would be the same in this relationship, whereas before it wouldn’t be.”

The Bledsaws say their marriage was going forward regardless of the Supreme Court decisions.

“We talked about it, and I said, ’What if we can’t get you those benefits?’” says Kim. “’Do you still want to get married?’ And she said, ’Absolutely.’ We were going to do it regardless. It was something we wanted to do. And it was just a bonus when we got it. It made it even more special for us. … This is something that I never thought I would see in my military career. For it to happen while I’m still in is very exciting for me. It’s just going to be even better for those who are younger than me. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to experience it.”

Kim has 24 years of military experience. Originally from Sacramento, Kim enlisted in the Army in December 1988, when she was 21. She was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and then deployed to Saudi Arabia in October 1990, as part of Operation Desert Shield, and then into Iraq as part of a truck convoy during Desert Storm. She was deployed there for seven months. She left active duty Army in December ’91 and joined the reserves. In 1994, she enlisted in the Air Force Reserves in Sacramento. She served as a vehicle operator. In ’97, she moved to Reno and enlisted with the Nevada Air National Guard. She started as a vehicle operator and worked her way up to supervisor. She’s currently a full-time federal technician in civil engineering. She was deployed in Iraq for six months starting in August 2005. Now, in addition to her full-time position at the base, she also attends Truckee Meadows Community College, studying criminal justice. She received her associate degree in general studies earlier this year. But she’s clearly, first and foremost, a military lifer.

“I wear a uniform every day,” she says. “I’m a uniformed employee. I’m not just a civilian on base. You have to be enlisted to have that job.”

Deena, a hair stylist, moved to the Truckee Meadows from San Francisco during high school. She graduated from Reed High School, class of ’87.

“Moving up here, I thought I was in the country,” she says. “I was in culture shock. I hated it. I wanted go home. But I got used to it, and this is my home now. My kids were all born here. My grandkids have all been born here. This is home.”

She doesn’t look old enough to be a grandmother. But she’d been married twice before, to men, when she was young. “Obviously, it didn’t work out,” she says, with a laugh. She also had a decade-plus relationship with another woman. But her romance with Kim surprised her as much as anyone.

“I was like OK, I’m going to be that old lady with the cats,” says Deena. “I’m going to be single. I’m done with relationships. I’ve got my kids. I’ve got my grandkids. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. … I swore after my divorce that I was never getting married again, ever. I didn’t care who it was, I wasn’t doing it. … I was just done. I said, I’ll live in sin, whatever. I don’t want to be married, because it’s a huge commitment. … But when she asked, it was so sweet and so romantic. … It couldn’t have been better.”

One day, after work, Kim came home and went into the bedroom. After what, according to Deena, seemed like longer than usual, Kim’s two dogs, Bella and Precious, came bouncing out of the bedroom. There was something hanging from each of their collars. Deena thought Kim had gotten the dogs new toys. Kim prompted Deena to call the dogs. As the two dogs got closer, Deena noticed that tied with pink ribbon from Bella’s neck was a card. She opened it. It read, “We would really love it if you would marry our mom.”

Hanging from Precious’ collar was a ring.

Something about marry

The Bledsaws laugh a lot. They seem to be one of those rare couples that has both the giddy excitement of a young couple, and the ease and acceptance of a couple that’s been together a long time. They laugh at each others’ jokes and finish each other’s sentences.

“We planned it for next summer, to have a big wedding on the base,” says Deena. “That way, we’d have time to save money. I’d never had a wedding—gone to City Hall, never had a dress, never had any of that. This was her first wedding, so I wanted her to be involved in the process and everything.”

“We never thought we would have in our lifetime the benefits federally that we have,” says Kim. “I thought, you know, this is great for the younger generation. But when they legalized it in California we were like, ’Let’s just get married.’”

For a city with a thriving wedding industry and a history of being ahead of the curve on marriage laws—in the first half of the 20th century, Reno was a destination for quick marriages and divorces—the fact that Reno gay couples have to go to California to get married is ironic, to say the least.

The Bledsaws got married in Auburn, Calif., earlier this year.

Photo By Allison Young

For Kim and Deena’s friends and family, the biggest concern was the speed of the engagement. The couple started dating in May and got married in July.

“We’re not young, either,” says Deena. “We’re older. We’ve been through all the crap. And sometimes you just know. … Everything just fell into place. There were no bumps in the road or anything. It was just weird how it was so smooth.”

Kim’s parents were concerned they were rushing it.

“We sat them down, and I said, ’First off, I’m not pregnant,’” says Deena, with characteristic humor. “They’re like, ’Oh, thank god!’”

But the couple’s friends and families just wanted to know that they were getting married for the right reasons.

I even said, “I’m not a materialistic person,’” says Deena. “’I love nice things, but it doesn’t mean anything. I’m willing to sign a prenup, if that will make you more comfortable. I don’t care. Don’t put me on your benefits; don’t put me on your life insurance. Nothing. Everything can stay separate. That’s not what it’s about. It’s because I love her and want to be with her.’”

In the end, Kim and Deena says they were very happy with how many of their friends and family members were willing to take a day off of work and drive down to Auburn to see them wed.

“It meant a lot,” says Kim. They didn’t have to drive all that way, even though it’s not far. The support was pretty incredible.”

After the ceremony, they had a casual reception in Reno on the military base. (They still plan to have a more formal ceremony and reception next summer.)

“My mom is against gay marriage and she flat-out said, ’Well, I don’t support it,’” says Deena. “And I said, ’That’s good, Mom, because I’m not asking you to go to a gay marriage—I’m asking you to come to my marriage. I’m inviting you. You’re more than welcome to come. If you don’t, you don’t.’ … She was there, and she came to the reception and everything.”

“It was really cute because we helped her move the day after the reception, and she looked at me and said, ’Now I can say I have a daughter-in-law,’” says Kim.

She later told Deena: “I haven’t seen you be this happy and smile in over 20 years. … You’re never going to find better than Kim.”

“That says a lot,” says Deena. “She’s finally accepting it.”

Military support

“I’ve gotten nothing but support from my friends at the base, even from the commanders I’ve had,” says Kim. “I’ve never gotten any negativity.”

This sense of acceptance might be surprising to civilians who probably don’t view the military as paragons of progressive tolerance—especially since a large portion of Kim’s military career was during the era of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which meant she had to keep a big part of her personal identity relatively secret.

“I might be out in public in the past, and I might grab my girlfriend’s hand or give her a kiss on the cheek,” says Kim. “You always had to be careful who was around you. You never know who’s going to be around you.”

Nevada still hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage. The Bledsaws are able to extend benefits to Deena and her daughter because Kim is a federal employee. And they sympathize with Nevada same-sex who travel to California to marry, only to return home and find that the state and most employers therein don’t recognize the validity of their legal marriage. The Bledsaws reiterate again and again how supportive the Nevada Air National Guard has been of them and their marriage.

“They’re a wonderful couple,” says senior officer Delger. “They work well together. It’s beneficial for both of them to have somebody to sound off to—just like any other relationship. They’re best of friends. If you’re not best of friends, it ain’t going to work. I’ve been married to my wife for 26 years now, and we’re still best of friends.”

“I’m sure there’s people on the base who don’t agree with it, but we haven’t seen it,” says Deena. “It’s equal now. Our marriage is recognized like everybody else’s.”

“Whenever I’m out for a get-together after work, people ask, ’Where’s your wife?” says Kim, who delights in the question.

“When I introduce her, I’m like, ’This is my wife,’” says Deena. “And that’s it. There’s no explanation. And I think we’re fortunate, though, because a lot of people don’t have that support.”

The couple cites the Governor’s Military Ball earlier this year as one of the highlights of their young marriage. They were both a little nervous making one of their first public appearances as a married couple at an event that included a lot of state officials and high ranking officers from both the Air Force and the Army.

“I just kept telling myself it was OK to do this,” says Kim. “It’s OK to be here and to introduce her as my wife and to not have to hide anything.”

“I was like, we’re not going to dance, right?” says Deena. “Because I wasn’t sure. … And our friends were like, ’You better get out there!’ Like, ’Why aren’t you?’”

The couple took the dance floor after all, posed for pictures and had a great time. They credit their friends, mostly straight couples, in the Nevada Air National Guard with encouraging them to be themselves.

“Sometimes I think before I speak when I’m going to introduce her,” says Kim. “If I introduce her as my wife, how are they going to react? Because you have those people who are still close-minded. But it doesn’t stop me. ’This is my wife, Deena.’”