Sen. Michael Bennet joined 21 other senators to introduce a bill on Monday that would reinstate honor for the estimated 100,000 military service members discharged since World War II for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Restore Honor to Service Members Act has 97 co-sponsors in the House version, including Democrats Reps. Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter. An identical bill failed along party lines last session.
Before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, service members outed as LGBT were forced out of the military with the status of “other than honorable,” “general discharge” or “dishonorable,” depending on the situation. Without honor, these veterans don’t have access to certain benefits they earned, such as health care, the GI bill and military burial. An other-than-honorable-discharge status is treated as a felony in some states, making it impossible to vote and nearly impossible to find employment.
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a backward looking policy that undermined our national security and stood contrary to our national values,” Sen. Bennet said in a release. “It’s time to take steps that will help ensure these men and women receive the benefits they rightfully earned.”
The bill would correct the record by forcing the Department of Defense to remove mention of sexual orientation from discharge, reissue personnel records and hear oral testimony from people who experienced discrimination in the military. The move is more than symbolic — it would legally restore the rights that LGBT veterans have been denied.
The military has been making slow progress on this civil rights issue. The Department of Veterans Affairs was the last government agency to offer benefits to same-sex couples when the Obama Administration stopped enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013. The Department of Defense recently launched a working group to “study the implications” of letting transgender people serve openly in the military.
Denny Meyer, public affairs officer at American Veterans for Equal Rights, remembers when lying about sexual orientation was common practice during the Vietnam years — except then it was mostly straight people pretending to be gay to avoid the draft. He, on the other hand, pretended to be heterosexual, and served in the military for ten years. He would have served another ten, he said, but he was tired of having to hide his identity.
For Meyer, there was more to surviving in the military than dodging bullets. “You couldn’t say a word because then they’d know.” He remembers feeling pressured into laughing along with homophobic jokes.
Meyer thought it was only a matter of time before his superiors caught him. “Better to quit while you’re ahead,” he said.
Discharged with honor, he has worked on behalf of other LGBT service members who weren’t so lucky. American Veterans for Equal Rights was involved in the initial push for DADT repeal back in 2004 that started with a lawsuit by the Log Cabin Republicans. In 2010, a circuit court judge ruled that DADT was unconstitutional, and later that year, Congress passed legislation that established a process for ending the policy.
Meyer said the original version of the DADT repeal bill included plenty of provisions, including something like the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, that didn’t make it through to law. “When the bill fell and all this compromise was made at the last minute, everything got stripped out. So there are all these holes left.”
Denying veterans of the U.S. military honor for their service is one hole that needs filling, Meyer said. But a 2013 bill to do just that went nowhere because it lacked Republican support.
Is he hopeful things will go better this time around? Not really.
“I have hope my organization is still going to exist because there’ll be a need for it for years to come.”
U.S. Navy photo by Joshua Mann, public domain, via WikiMedia. (Marissa Gaeta (left) kisses her fiancé Citlalic Snell after three month deployment.)