Tens of thousands of LGBT veterans forced out of the military and given other-than-honorable discharges over their sexual orientation will be able to receive full Veterans Affairs benefits under a new move from the Biden admin set to be announced Monday.
While gay service members can now serve openly in the military, veterans kicked out only for their sexual orientation under past policies have until now faced hurdles to access benefits due to “less than honorable” discharges.
The change comes as the country approaches the 10th anniversary of repeal of the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forced nearly 14,000 service members out of the ranks for admitting their sexual orientation before it was repealed in 2011.
But the impact of the new VA policy impacts many more than those individuals, potentially including troops who served before and after the law who were given poor performance reviews or bullied into leaving the military because their sexuality.
More than 100,000 service members were expelled from the military because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation between World War II and 2011, according to a 2020 report from Harvard Law School.
A “less than honorable” discharge — an informal term for all discharges that are not honorable — can bar gay service members from state and federal benefits.
Hanna Tripp, policy adviser for Minority Veterans of America, applauded efforts removing barriers for people who have been denied benefits that they might need, especially emergency benefits like housing, like Supportive Services for Veteran Families funding, or access to health care.
Service members separated without an honorable discharge can face difficulty getting a job, going back to school or obtaining a home loan.
Under a “general with honorable” discharge, one of the most common administrative discharges, a veteran is eligible for all benefits, except for the GI Bill. A notch below that is an “other than honorable” discharge, the most harsh administrative discharge, which disqualifies you from all benefits.
“An other than honorable is terrible. That means you can’t get regular VA benefits and other benefits – housing benefits, unemployment benefits are all pegged to having at least a general,” Rochelle Bobroff, director of the pro bono program at Lawyers Serving Warriors, a project of the National Veterans Legal Services Program that gives veterans free legal help with different disability claims.
VA adjudicators, who decide whether to approve veterans’ claims for VA benefits, will no longer consider veterans ineligible because of their discharges for sexual orientation or gender identity, said Kayla Williams, the VA’s assistant secretary for public affairs.
The department will award a veteran his or her benefits unless the person’s military record shows another reason that he or she doesn’t qualify.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough issued the new guidance to VA adjudicators Monday.
“Although VA recognizes that the trauma caused by the military’s decades-long policy of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people cannot be undone in a few short months, the Biden administration and Secretary McDonough are taking the steps necessary to begin addressing the pain that such policies have created,” Williams said.