As it marks the tenth anniversary of the repeal of the now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that barred LGBTQ individuals from serving openly in the U.S. military, the Biden administration has announced that discharged veterans may soon be able to receive full benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Today, we are also taking steps to clarify VA policy for Veterans who were given other than honorable discharges based on homosexual conduct, gender identity or HIV status,” Kayla Williams, an assistant secretary for public affairs in VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, wrote in a blog post published Monday on the VA website. “Under this newly-issued guidance, VA adjudicators shall find that all discharged service members whose separation was due to sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status are considered ‘Veterans’ who may be eligible for VA benefits.”
The Military Times had previously reported on the proposed policy last week. Under the new policy, the department will review the cases of those who received other-than-honorable discharges and — provided there was no reasonable justification for the discharge, such as a criminal history, security violations, or other unacceptable behavior — reinstate educational, housing, pension, health care, and burial benefits for them.
The new proposal continues the Biden administration’s attempts to put LGBTQ veterans on a similar playing field to their heterosexual counterparts, including attempts by VA Secretary Denis McDonough to establish a task force examining how department policies hinder or prohibit access to care for LGBTQ veterans, or pursuing a proposed rule change that would allow transgender veterans to access medically necessary gender-affirming care.
An estimated 14,000 veterans were discharged under DADT, which first went into effect in 1994, under President Bill Clinton, as a “compromise” between the White House and an unreceptive Congress that favored keeping the previous categorical ban on LGBTQ service members in place. Under the compromise, at least in theory, military personnel would not ask about a service member’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and that service member would not disclose information to others about their private sexual behavior.
However, in practice, the policy was rarely enforced as intended.
“For LGB service members, repeal of DADT meant freedom from having to go through the inhumanity of having to lie about the basic aspects of their lives in order to serve in uniform,” Williams wrote on the VA blog, reflecting on her own experience as a closeted bisexual service member.
“For many, the repeal also meant freedom from abuse and harassment from leaders and colleagues who disregarded the policy’s explicit bar on pursuing and targeting suspected service members. In truth, there was never an effective mechanism under DADT that truly protected service members from harassment, and repeal was the only way that service members were able to seek recourse against harassment.”
On Monday, President Joe Biden issued a statement commemorating the anniversary of the repeal and reiterating his support for open service, as demonstrated by his own reversal of a Trump-era policy barring the majority of transgender military members from serving openly.
“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members,” he said in the statement. “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all. It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Noting that he supported the repeal of the policy when serving as vice president under former President Barack Obama, Biden celebrated some of the LGBTQ veterans currently serving in his administration, including Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, all of whom had served under DADT.
“On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ service members and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation,” Biden said. “We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) also commemorated the anniversary of repeal, insisting that the repeal — passed under a Democratic-led Congress — demonstrated her party’s commitment to equality and continued support for LGBTQ veterans.
“Since our nation’s founding, LGBTQ Americans have bravely put their lives on the line for our freedom — yet for too long have been denied the dignity and respect they deserve,” Pelosi said in a statement. “After Democrats proudly threw ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ into the dustbin of history in 2011, the Trump Administration cruelly revived the same forces of fear and hatred four years ago with its ban on transgender men and women from the armed forces. Congressional Democrats salute President Biden for swiftly repealing this discriminatory policy upon taking office, and we remain united in our commitment to combat homophobia, transphobia and bigotry in all forms.”
Bree Fram, the president of SPART*A, the nation’s leading transgender military service organization, also celebrated the anniversary of DADT repeal as a victory for both the military and individual service members.
“SPART*A stands in awe of all the heroes who helped bring about the end of DADT ten years ago, many of whom did so at great personal risk,” Fram said in a statement. “We recognize the repeal as a great step forward, but also as a link in a chain of events stretching well into the past. Every change on policy or law that increased the diversity and inclusiveness of the military has made it stronger. With transgender service members taking that step just this year, for the second time, we know we’re not done and the chain isn’t complete. We must continue to strive for greater inclusion, including of nonbinary and intersex individuals, so that our military attracts and retains the best and the brightest this country has to offer.”
The LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD praised the Biden administration’s proposed policy regarding the restoration of benefits for those who received less-than-honorable discharges under DADT.
“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,” Rich Ferraro, the chief communications officer for GLAAD, said in a statement. “On the ten year anniversary of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ we honor LGBTQ service members who have long served with strength, dignity and pride. Today’s move from the VA will help so many LGBTQ and other veterans who were unjustly removed from service prior to the repeal.”
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