Military unveils outreach campaign to reverse dishonorable discharges from Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era

Soldiers of the California National Guard with fellow service members and veterans during San Diego Pride
Soldiers of the California National Guard with fellow service members and veterans during San Diego Pride
U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cossel

The Department of Defense is embarking on a new mission to locate queer service members booted from the military due to their sexuality during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and provide them with the benefits they should have received all along.

“In the coming weeks, we will be initiating new outreach campaigns to encourage all service members and veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a written statement on Sept. 20 marking 12 years since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell formally ended. Federal judges ruled against it the year before that and it was in 2010 when then-President Barack Obama signed legislation to nix the policy.

While some service members have already upgraded their discharges — four out of every five applicants have gained upgrades, according to the Department of Defense — many others have yet to do so for several reasons, including a difficult application process, fears of mistreatment, and a lack of awareness among those who were dishonorably discharged. Now, though, officials want to make it easier for queer veterans to get their records fixed, including by simplifying the paperwork associated with the application process.

The Department of Defense says it is “re-doubling” outreach efforts to queer veterans through online and mail communication as well as through non-profits and veterans groups. For starters, the military created an online web page serving as a resource hub for those seeking more information on the process.

This endeavor marks the first time the Department of Defense will proactively review records of veterans discharged due to their sexual orientation, even if they have not applied. Once the names are identified, the Department of Defense will look to gather their military records, primarily from the National Archives. After determining that an upgrade is in order, the department will send the names to the secretaries leading whichever branch of the military the service member belonged to. The records would ultimately be corrected with the Military Department Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records.

Two years ago, the Department of Veteran Affairs announced a similar campaign to restore benefits and honorable status to veterans kicked out of the military due to their sexual orientation or HIV status. That announcement stated that veterans could get their veterans statuses corrected, allowing service members to receive a range of VA benefits such as health care, burial benefits, pensions, and more. As of the time of that announcement, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported that 14,000 gay or lesbian service members had been discharged since 1993.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 65,000 gay and lesbian active duty service members and 15,000 transgender members of the military. President Joe Biden signed an executive order early in his term to reverse his predecessor’s policy barring transgender service members from the military.

While the Department of Defense’s new initiative does not specify whether service members booted prior to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would receive assistance, the military’s announcement coincided with a separate proposal by House Democrats to establish a 15-member commission to evaluate previous Department of Defense policies “policing sexual orientation and gender identity in the uniformed services, from the beginning of World War II onward.”

In August, a class action lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California by veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation. They insisted that they were refused honorable discharges and that their privacy was violated when the military put their sexual orientation on service records.

“The US Armed Forces allows that discrimination to live on in the discharge papers carried by LGBTQ+ veterans, denying them privacy, benefits, and pride in their service,” the lawsuit stated.