VA Issues Directive Restoring Benefits to Discharged LGBTQ Veterans

Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough’s confirmation hearing in Washington
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough has issued a directive to correct the discharge status of LGBTQ service members and individuals living with HIV.
Vogel/Pool via REUTERS

On the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued a directive intended to restore benefits and honorable status to veterans discharged due to their sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS status.

In an announcement on September 20, the department reaffirmed that veterans who were terminated due to the discriminatory policy could get their veteran statuses corrected and are poised to receive a wide range of VA benefits, including health care, burial benefits, pensions, and more. Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs in the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, underscored the importance of protecting the rights of LGBTQ veterans.

“The repeal of DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) gave LGB service members the freedom to serve without having to hide an essential part of themselves,” Williams said in a written statement. “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.”

The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was imposed during the Bill Clinton administration in February of 1994 and prohibited lesbian, gay, and bisexual veterans from serving openly in the military. Some individuals were harassed or outed if colleagues suspected they were part of the LGBTQ community, and according to the Center For American Progress Action Fund, approximately 14,000 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged from the military since 1993. 

Lawmakers are also proposing legislation that would add weight to the new policy changes. Out gay Congressmember Mark Pocan of Wisconsin has reintroduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act or S.1991, a bill that would correct military records and install benefits to LGBTQ service members if signed into law.

“All service members who proudly served our country deserve the benefits they are entitled to, regardless of their sexual orientation,” House Representative Pocan said in a written statement. “It is past time that Congress and the Department of Defense correct past injustices by restoring benefits to all LGBTQIA+ service members who served our nation honorably.”

Pocan noted that many veterans are unaware that the department can update their discharge status, according to a press release. Because of this, the bill calls for the Department of Defense to contact discharged LGBTQ veterans and help them through this process.

President Joe Biden denounced the now-repealed policy for its long-term effects on LGBTQ individuals in the military.

“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied, and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members,” Biden said in a written statement. “It was the right thing to do. 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.”

This move from the VA Department coincides with other actions affirming LGBTQ service members. During Pride Month, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced a plan to amend existing guidelines to help cover gender-affirming surgery for transgender veterans, and earlier this year, President Biden reversed a Trump-era ban on transgender troops in the military.

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