For years, LGBTQ military members were only allowed to serve so long as nobody openly acknowledged their sexual orientation or gender identity. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that those service members who received other than honorable discharges for their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status are eligible for full benefits.
The announcement was made on the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which had been put into place in February 1994 by former President Bill Clinton. It is estimated that nearly 14,000 gay and lesbian service members were discharged from the military in the 18 years the policy was in place, according to the Center for American Progress.
"At VA, we continuously work not only to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ Veterans, but also to address ongoing issues that LGBTQ+ Veterans face as a result of the military's decades-long official policy of homophobia and transphobia," Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs for the VA wrote, in a blog post of the announcement. "...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 announcement does not represent a legal change, but instead clarifies existing rules.
The VA said that veterans discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy alone have maintained general eligibly for benefits under statutes. The announcement simply reiterates what constitutes eligibility for benefits under law.
Up until the updated guidance, LGBTQ service members who received an "other than honorable" discharge from the military have been excluded from many veteran services and benefits, including access to medical care, compensation, pensions and education. They were also not permitted to reenlist.
So long as the discharged service members' records do not "implicate a statutory or regulatory bar to benefits," they may be eligible for those benefits, the VA said.
If those who received an other than honorable discharged because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or HIV status had a Character of Discharge case that was initially denied, that case will now be reviewed. Williams wrote in the blog post that many LGBTQ veterans have not applied to have their discharges adjusted, and that she hopes this will encourage them to do so.
When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was repealed, Williams said that it gave LGBTQ service members "the freedom to service without having to hide an essential part of themselves."
"It also recognized what so many of us already knew to be true: That one's ability to serve in the military should be measured by character, skills and abilities, not who one loves," she wrote. "...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."
Williams, who is bisexual, says she chose to "present as straight" while the policy was being argued for repeal.
"It made sense at the time that there was a more pressing need for me as a woman married to a man to say, 'No one in my unit cared if anyone was gay while we were in Iraq.' I could talk credibly about how the lack of sufficient Arabic linguists harmed our effectiveness downrange, and my own identity seemed irrelevant," she said. "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."
President Biden said Monday that the repeal of the policy lifted a "tremendous weight" off the shoulders of military members.
"It was the right thing to do," he said. "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."
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