LGBTQ veterans who were given other than honorable discharges from the U.S. military due to their sexual orientation are eligible to receive full benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Monday.
“LGBTQ+ Veterans are not any less worthy of the care and services that all Veterans earn through their service, and VA is committed to making sure that they have equal access to those services,” the department said in a statement.
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The policy statement comes on the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the controversial 1993 law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which banned LGBTQ service members who were open about their sexual orientation from serving in the military.
Overall, an estimated 100,000 were discharged from the U.S. military due to their sexual orientation, including an estimated 14,000 service members who were discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” during the 17 years that it was in effect, according to the VA.
Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILEGay rights activists and gay veterans, including former Army Lieutenant Dan Choi (4th L) and former Marine Corporal Evelyn Thomas (5th L), handcuff themselves to the fence of the White House during a protest Nov. 15, 2010 in Washington, DC.
“This historic move ends an unjust practice and creates a smoother pathway for life-saving benefits like healthcare, pensions, and housing assistance to finally go to the LGBTQ service members, as well as people with HIV, who were discharged during and before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell only because of who they are,” said GLAAD Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro in a statement. “On the ten year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we’ve seen LGBTQ service members serve strong and proud and today’s move from the VA will help so many LGBTQ and other veterans who were unjustly removed from service prior to the repeal.”
The VA statement was shared by Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs in VA’s office of public and intergovernmental affairs, who is bisexual, but previously chose not to disclose her sexuality under the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“It took many years for me to shed the toxic legacy of having served under DADT and come back out of the closet; I’m proud to recognize this anniversary as my authentic self,” Williams said.
In order to reenlist in the military and access medical care, compensation, a military pension as well as education, home loan and insurance benefits, a service member has to be discharged honorably.
And although “don’t ask, don’t tell,” did not require that veterans be discharged dishonorably, some veterans were given other than honorable discharges because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status, making them ineligible for benefits.
Mark Reinstein/Getty Images, FILEMembers of the Gay Veterans Association march past the White House and down Pennsylvania Ave onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., April 25, 1993.
According to a 2016 report by The Associated Press, less than 8% of veterans who were expelled from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell” applied to upgrade their discharges to honorable or strip references to their sexual orientation from their record.
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The VA said in a statement it hopes that the policy statement would encourage more LGBTQ veterans who were discharged dishonorably to reach out to the VA to reassess their eligibility for benefits.
“Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ Veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” according to a VA statement.
Ron Edmonds/AP, FILEPresident Bill Clinton gestures during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, D.C. Jan. 29, 1993. The president directed that an executive order reversing the ban on homosexuals in the military be prepared by July 15.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” was signed into law in 1993 under the administration of President Bill Clinton, who initially sought to end a World War II-era ban on homosexuals serving in the military.
Amid backlash from some military leaders and members of Congress, Clinton managed to get support for an apparent compromise, which would allow LGBTQ individuals to serve in the military if they did not disclose their sexual orientation.
During his first term in office, President Barack Obama voiced his support for repealing the law. The U.S. Senate passed a measure to end the policy in December 2010, with the support of 65 senators, including six Republicans.
Obama signed it into law in 2010, but it didn’t not go into effect until Sept. 20, 2011.
“It is time to close this chapter in our history. It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed. It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly,” Obama said at the time.
President Joe Biden marked the 10th anniversary of the repeal on Monday and voiced his support for the LGBTQ community.
“Despite serving with extraordinary honor and courage throughout our history, more than 100,000 American service members have been discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—including some 14,000 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House. “Many of these veterans received what are known as “other than honorable” discharges, excluding them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn.”
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