Gay and lesbian service members have been able to serve openly since 2011, when the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. But for some who were deported because they were gay before the repeal, their less than honorable discharge status means they cannot access vital veterans’ benefits. Now, states are passing laws to extend benefits to LGBT veterans.
Advocates for LGBT service members estimate that 114,000 people were fired for homosexuality between World War II and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Some of them received other than honorable discharges, cutting off their access to state and federal veterans benefits.
Rhode Island and New York passed laws to restore state military benefits. Now lawmakers in Connecticut, New Jersey and Colorado want to do the same.
“This also needs to be fixed at the federal level, but at least at the state level, we were able to create this classification that if you’re an LGBT veteran and you received an ‘other than honorable’ discharge due to your sexual orientation or gender identity, then you deserve access to all of these state benefits,” said Democratic Colorado State Sen. Dominick Moreno, who helped draft new legislation which restores state benefits like educational opportunities and military burials.
But that still leaves major benefits — like comprehensive VA health care and the GI bill — out of reach. States cannot themselves improve military landfills.
“At the end of the day, it’s really a federal problem — especially if people are looking for health care under TRICARE or if they’re looking for all these other benefits — it has to happen at the federal level,” said Moreno.
Congress has repeatedly considered a federal version of state bills. It would offer blanket upgrades to most veterans who were deported simply because they were gay. But he didn’t go anywhere.
“We’ve been in this fight for a very long time,” said Jennifer Dane, executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, an advocacy group for LGBTQ service members. “We write it into the National Defense Authorization Act every year, or at least try to, and then it comes to the ways and means committee and it usually comes back that it’s too expensive.”
In Colorado, lawmakers who voted against the law had other problems with extending state benefits to veterans with less than honorable leaves. Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf argued on home soil that it would undermine discharge decisions the military has already made. And the rules are the rules.
“The expectation for all service members is that you will follow general orders, you will follow the ordering policy and ordering guidelines, you will follow the UCMJ as written at the time of service,” Holtorf said. .
This argument does not work for Ashton Stewart. He runs a program called SAGEVets, helping older LGBT veterans in New York City access benefits.
“Legislators are hiding behind the integrity issue,” Stewart said. “It’s because they don’t want to tackle the real problem here, which is discrimination.”
Stewart helped craft New York’s Honor Restoration Act. He said that as more states pass similar laws, he hopes it will put pressure on the federal government to make the same changes.
Connecticut lawmakers proposed a similar bill this year. State Senator Cathy Osten said in a February interview that the bill isn’t just about giving ex-servicemen what they deserve. It was part of a package of bills designed to attract — and keep — more veterans to Connecticut, home to the Coast Guard Academy and a submarine base.
“I’ve drafted many different veterans bills to make Connecticut more veteran-friendly, to be considered one of the most veteran-friendly states,” said Osten, a veteran of the United States. ‘army. “We have the subbase here, we have a lot of people coming to Connecticut. I would like them to stay here.
Navy veteran Louis Miller of Bronx, New York, was deported for being gay in 1992. He said he hadn’t tried to improve his “other than honorable” discharge until recently.
“I knew I was fighting a losing battle,” Miller said. “I didn’t try, because I knew I couldn’t win.”
Now Miller has a win – his candidacy earned one of the first endorsements after the New York law went into effect last year.
“They [the military] gave me a bad piece of paper, but you can’t take away what I did there,” Miller said. “It’s inside of me. It’s my honor. You can’t take my honor away from me. What you took away is my gratitude. Restoring honor in New York State is what it does: it gives me some recognition.
And, it unlocks access to dozens of state veteran benefits, like tuition assistance and property tax breaks.
Miller said he’s always been proud of his service, and now he’s proud that New York State recognizes that as well.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.