States Expand Veterans Benefits to Former Service Members Kicked Out For Sexual Orientation

Gay and lesbian military members have been able to serve openly since 2011, when the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed. But for some who were expelled for being gay before the repeal, their less than honorable discharge status means they can’t access vital veterans benefits. Now, states are passing laws to expand benefits to LGBTQ+ veterans.

Advocates for LGBTQ+ service members estimate as many as 114,000 were discharged for being gay between World War II and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Some of them received other than honorable discharges, cutting off their access to state and federal veterans benefits.

Rhode Island and New York have passed laws to restore state military benefits. Now, lawmakers in Connecticut, New Jersey and Colorado want to do the same thing.

“This needs to be corrected at the federal level as well, but at least at the state level we were able to create this classification that if you are an LGBTQ+ veteran, and you received an ‘other than honorable’ discharge because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, then you deserve access to all of those state benefits,” Colorado Democratic state senator Dominick Moreno said. He helped write a new law that restores state benefits like education opportunities and military burials.

But that still leaves major benefits — like full VA health care and the GI bill — out of reach. States cannot upgrade military discharges on their own.

“Ultimately, it’s really a federal issue — particularly if people are seeking health care under TRICARE or if they’re seeking all those other benefits — that needs to happen at the federal level,” Moreno said.

Congress has considered a federal version of the state bills several times. It would offer blanket discharge upgrades to most veterans who were kicked out just for being gay. But it hasn’t gone anywhere.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a really long time,” said Jennifer Dane, executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ service members. “We put it in the National Defense Authorization Act every year, or at least try to, and then it gets to the Ways and Means Committee and it comes back usually that it’s too expensive.”

In Colorado, legislators who voted against the law had other problems with extending state benefits to veterans with less than honorable discharges. Republican Representative Richard Holtorf argued on the house floor that it would undercut discharge decisions the military has already made. And, rules are rules.

“The expectation for all service members is that you will follow general orders, you will follow command policy and command directives, you will follow the UCMJ as it is written at the time of the service,” Holtorf said.

That argument doesn’t work for Ashton Stewart. He runs a program called SAGEVets, helping older LGBTQ+ veterans in New York get access to benefits.

“Legislators are hiding behind the integrity issue,” Stewart said. “It’s because they don’t want to address the issue that’s really happening here, which is discrimination.”

Stewart helped craft New York’s Restoration of Honor law. He said as more states pass similar laws, he hopes it will pressure the federal government to make the same changes.

Connecticut lawmakers proposed a similar bill this year. State senator Cathy Osten said during a February interview that the bill wasn’t just about giving ex-service members what they deserve. It was part of a package of bills designed to attract — and keep — more veterans in Connecticut, home to the Coast Guard Academy and a submarine base.

“I’ve done a lot of different veterans bills to have Connecticut be more veteran-friendly, be considered one of the more veteran-friendly states,” Osten, an Army veteran, said. “We have the sub base here, we have a lot of people that come to Connecticut. I’d like them to stay here.”

Navy veteran Louis Miller was kicked out for being gay in 1992. His application under New York’s Restoration of Honor law was one of the first to be approved last year when the last took effect.

Navy veteran Louis Miller from Bronx, New York, was kicked out for being gay in 1992. He said he didn’t try to upgrade his “other than honorable” discharge until recently.

“I knew I was fighting a losing battle,” Miller said. “I didn’t try, because I knew I couldn’t win.”

Now, Miller’s got one win — his application got one of the first approvals after New York’s law took effect last year.

“They [the military] gave me a bad piece of paper, but you can’t take away what I did there,” Miller said. “That’s inside of me. That’s my honor. You can’t take away my honor. What you took away was my recognition of it. The restoration of honor in New York state, that’s what it does: it gives me some recognition.”

And, it opens up access to dozens of state veterans benefits like tuition assistance and property tax breaks.

Miller said he’s always been proud of his service, and now he’s proud that New York State recognizes it, too.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This article was originally published in WSHU on April 29, 2021.