Tens of thousands of LGBTQ veterans whose military service ended due to discriminatory policies focused on sexual orientation and HIV status now have an easier path to receiving full VA benefits thanks to new guidelines aimed at righting those wrongs.
VA Benefits For All
The Department of Veteran Affairs announced the change in policy Monday to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the repeal of the most well-known of those exclusionary policies, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The decision will give LGBTQ servicemembers who ended their military service with an other than honorable discharge due to prejudiced policies access to a wide array of VA benefits, including health care, housing aid, pensions, burial benefits and the department’s homeless aid program.
“Although [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] was considered a ‘compromise’ from the previous Department of Defense policy dating back to World War II that empowered the military to pursue – or ‘ask’ – service members suspected of engaging in homosexual acts, DADT nevertheless led to the discharge of an estimated 14,000 service members during the almost 18 years it was in place,” said Kayla Williams, VA Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs assistant secretary for public affairs, in a statement. “Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is working to reverse the harm done to all LGBTQ+ Veterans.”
The new policy allows LGBTQ veterans discharged under previous anti-LGBTQ statutes to apply for VA benefits without undergoing the time-consuming process of applying for a discharge upgrade. According to Williams, the discharge upgrade process also carries an “onerous” reputation.
“Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ Veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” said Williams.
The move is the latest in a series of actions from the Biden administration this year aimed at addressing anti-LGBTQ measures that have persisted in the U.S. military for decades. President Biden ended the exclusion of transgender individuals from the military in an executive order signed shortly after taking office. The VA previously announced that the department would offer gender-affirming care, including gender-affirming surgeries.
“[This is] allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said during a Pride event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System in June. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives.”
President Biden honored LGBTQ veterans in his administration, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones in remarks commemorating the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Monday. “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,” said Biden.
“The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell … helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all,” he added. “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.”
Williams’ statement pointed to Monday’s policy change as another step in the military’s reckoning with its homophobic and transphobic past.
“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 added. “LGBTQ+ Veterans are not any less worthy of the care and services that all Veterans earn through their service, and VA is committed to making sure that they have equal access to those services.”
LGBTQ Veterans: Previously on Towleroad
Photo courtesy of Charles Edward Miller/Creative Commons