A Continued Struggle for Equality: LGBTQ Service Members and Veterans
LGBTQ service members and veterans face unique struggles due to the long history of anti-LGBTQ discriminatory policy within the Armed Forces dating back to the Revolutionary War. We spoke to advocates for LGBTQ current service members and veterans about serving with pride.
“A [less-than-Honorable discharge] is to the detriment of the service member or veteran to be singled out in this way. It’s not just a loss of career. The military is not just a career. This is your family – your home.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, LGBTQ veterans face lower overall health outcomes and increased risk for certain mental and physical health conditions on top of the discrimination they face because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
These risks of discrimination and related negative health outcomes make LGBTQ service members particularly vulnerable to unjust military discharges. There are five discharge characterizations: Honorable, Honorable Under General, Other than Honorable, Bad Conduct, and Dishonorable. An individual discharged as Other-than-Honorable (OTH) or below faces heavy stigma and potential exclusion from veterans’ healthcare, income disability benefits, employment opportunities, and more.
“A [less-than-Honorable discharge] is to the detriment of the service member or veteran to be singled out in this way.” Jacob Eleazer, Director of Advocacy for Service Members, Partners, Allies, for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPART*A), said. “It’s not just a loss of career. The military is not just a career. This is your family – your home.”
SPART*A is an advocacy and community group of transgender people who currently serve or have served in the military. Jacob Eleazer is a trans veteran who served 12 years in the Kentucky National Guard. As Director of Advocacy, Eleazer advocates to support education and training for medical and mental health military providers to help trans individuals in the military. SPART*A helps to support struggling trans service members and veterans in addition to challenging harmful policies.
In 1992, President Bill Clinton announced Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), a policy in which gay and lesbian Americans could serve in the Armed Forces, but only if they did not disclose their sexual orientation. In addition to facing administrative discharges, service members often faced discrimination and violence if their sexual identity was discovered by other service members.
Though repealed in 2009, this policy created a toxic environment where harassment and sexual assault were frequently swept under the rug for fear of discharge. Then in 2018, President Donald Trump issued a trans exclusion policy that prevents current service members from serving in their preferred gender and bars recruits diagnosed with gender dysphoria from enlistment.
For LGBTQ service members discharged because of their sexual orientation, the circumstances surrounding their discharges can make transition into civilian life difficult.
“Some people are pushed out as quickly as possible with very little time to prepare and adjust for their transition into civilian life. They can experience rejection from family members,” said Eleazer. “It sets folks up for pretty tragic outcomes.”
Many veterans are unaware they are eligible for state or federal based veterans care, or they simply don’t know how to navigate the bureaucratic process. Without the right information, it can be difficult stay out of homelessness or to access to healthcare benefits. Beyond information, veterans may struggle to find employment due to stigmatizing information on their DD-214, the one-page discharge paper employers and state and local entities require as proof of military service.
“Things that would not be noticed between heterosexual people are hyper noticed for [LGBTQ people]. I get calls all the time [about cases where] people interpret harmless touching from LGBTQ people as sexual assault or sexual battery. That’s the new thing.”
Another fierce advocate for LGBTQ rights, Peter Perkowski, helps veterans as the Legal & Policy Director of the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA). Peter leads MMAA’s legal and policy initiatives focusing on military service members and veterans within the LGBTQ community and those living with HIV. In his legal career, he has helped many veterans successfully upgrade their discharge status to restore honor and dignity. Many simply want to be seen and recognized for their contributions.
The MMAA focuses on supporting the larger military community including service members, veterans, and military spouses and families for LGBTQ individuals and those living with HIV. Perkowski said he focuses on litigation and policy, most recently working with members of Congress to overturn or oppose the trans exclusion policy. They provide a wide range of resources and services including legal assistance for discharge upgrades.
Even after the repeal of DADT, many LGBTQ service members suffer discrimination from their commanders and their peers. According to Perkowski, for the same minor offense, LGBTQ service members may face greater punishments when compared to their heterosexual peers. Some are administratively discharged and others are even court martialed.
“Things that would not be noticed between heterosexual people are hyper noticed for [LGBTQ people],” said Perkowski. “I get calls all the time [about cases where] people interpret harmless touching from LGBTQ people as sexual assault or sexual battery. That’s the new thing.”
Veterans, who receive upgrades, may gain access to concrete benefits including access to educational benefits, healthcare benefits, and in some cases, the opportunity to re-enlist. Others also want to secure after-life care that includes being buried in a veteran cemetery.
When a veteran successfully upgrades their discharge status, the effects are transformative. “There is an immediate change in attitude,” said Perkowski. “It’s elation. Folks will break into tears because it’s been a lifetime of living under that cloud.”
Since its inception, representing veterans in discharge upgrades has been an integral part of CVLC’s mission to knock down the barriers to housing, healthcare and income. Today, CVLC continues to advocate for clients including those whose unjust discharges resulted from DADT or prior discriminatory practices and which continue to exclude too many from robust benefits. We are proud to fight for justice for our LGBTQ clients and look forward to a day when all can serve openly and with #pride regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.
More on the Veterans Inclusion Project
Founded in 2020, the Veterans Inclusion Project is the national advocacy initiative of CVLC. The Veterans Inclusion Project grew out of CVLC’s ongoing representation of veterans who have been unjustly shut out of VA benefits or otherwise stigmatized through discriminatory discharge practices. Through this representation, CVLC has learned firsthand how transformative and powerful it is for an excluded veteran to finally gain access to VA services and to regain their honor and dignity through discharge upgrade petitions to the Department of Defense (DoD).
The mission of the Veterans Inclusion Project is to make veterans’ benefits accessible for all low-income veterans through a combination of national policy advocacy and capacity building for legal advocates.
The Veterans Inclusion Project’s values are inclusivity, respect and parity for mental illness, trauma, and other invisible wounds of war, a commitment to anti-racism and anti-discrimination advocacy, integrity, compassion, and teamwork.