Metro Weekly

Gay congressman wants to correct military records of LGBTQ people discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Congressman Mark Pocan's bill aligns with Biden administration efforts to restore benefits to wrongfully discharged LGBTQ service members.

don't ask, don't tell, gay, lgbtq, veteran, military
Photo: Israel Palacio.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) has reintroduced a bill aimed at correcting the military records of service members who received less than honorable discharges due to their sexual orientation under the now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

The reintroduction of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which Pocan had sponsored during previous congressional sessions, coincided not only with the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” earlier this week, but with recent actions being taken by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs under the Biden administration.

On the anniversary of DADT repeal, the Biden administration announced that it intends to review the records of LGBTQ service members discharged under the policy and — provided there are no justifiable reasons for a less than honorable discharge, such as behavioral problems or a criminal history — restore benefits that those service members earned but were denied them due to their sexual orientation.

Under Pocan’s bill, service members found to be wrongfully discharged simply due to their sexual orientation would be able to request a review of their military records and potentially have them corrected to reflect an honorable discharge, thereby making them eligible for the benefits they lost due to being unintentionally outed by their peers or coming out as LGBTQ. The bill would require the Department of Defense to proactively reach out to veterans discharged for their sexual orientation and inform them about the process for requesting a review and correcting their records.

Even though the Department of Veterans Affairs, under the Biden administration, is already taking action on the issue, Pocan’s bill is important because it would cement the policy in statute, ensuring that LGBTQ service members and veterans can continue to recoup benefits in the future, even if a future presidential administration that is hostile to LGBTQ rights takes office and attempts to repeal current VA policy.

The Restore Honor to Service Members Act has been endorsed by several LGBTQ and service member support organizations, including For All Vets, PFLAG, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and VoteVets, and currently has 68 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.

See also: Senate confirms two LGBTQ nominees to top military posts in historic firsts

Since World War II, more than 100,000 Americans were estimated to have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation, often receiving discharge statuses of “other than honorable,” “general discharge,” or “dishonorable,” depending on the circumstances. An estimated 14,000 were discharged under DADT, which first went into effect in 1994 as a so-called “compromise” under which military personnel would not ask about a service member’s sexual orientation, and that service member would refrain from disclosing information about their sexual orientation.

However, in practice, the policy was rarely enforced as intended, with some military members, including unit leaders, using the policy to conduct witch hunts of service members suspected of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, often spying on them and outing them in order to “purge” the ranks of LGBTQ individuals.

“All service members who proudly served our country deserve the benefits they are entitled to, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Pocan said in a statement. “It is past time that Congress and the Department of Defense correct past injustices by restoring benefits to all LGBTQIA+ service members who served our nation honorably.”

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