Op-ed: 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Isn't Dead Yet

By Jackie Speier

Originally published on Advocate.com July 10 2014 6:00 AM ET

Too many men and women have been forced out of the military after being raped. I’ve heard these heartbreaking stories, but never in a homeless shelter.

Amanda (not her real name) was sexually assaulted and then discharged by the military for revealing her sexual orientation during the “don't ask, don't tell” days of not long ago. Amanda suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, fell into a deep depression, had a difficult time finding work in the civilian world and ended up homeless in a shelter surrounded by too many other veterans.

For decades, the world’s greatest military systematically discriminated against its own. The final manifestation of this effort was the ill-conceived compromise policy, “don't ask, don't tell.”

The idea was to sweep this issue under the rug by muzzling individuals from speaking about their sexual orientation or behavior — if they were lesbian, gay, or bi, that is — and prohibiting commanders from asking unless they had “evidence.” Theoretically, this allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members to serve their country, but many became collateral damage to a policy that didn’t acknowledge the fundamental right for any law-abiding citizen to serve their country, no matter their sexual orientation. When all was said and done, “don't ask, don't tell” sent 14,000 capable men and women out the door.

This flawed policy didn’t stop there. A directive was signed that explicitly stipulated that if a service member was discharged because of their sexual orientation — even honorably — they would receive only half the pay they were entitled to. This was an insult that insinuated they were perceived as being only half a person by the Department of Defense.

This despicable directive was partially corrected in January 2013 when a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union provided separation pay for 104 of these service members. This certainly was a victory, but thousands more are still left without the compensation they earned.

That’s why I have introduced legislation to provide full separation pay for the service members discharged under “don't ask, don't tell” who served six or more years.

The Military Separation Pay Fairness Act, which I introduced to Congress this summer, guarantees that they receive the difference between their original payment and full separation pay plus interest within 90 days. The average payout was in the $14,000 range in last year’s ACLU settlement, a drop in the bucket for the Department of Defense.

Today, gay, lesbian, and bi service members can openly and proudly serve in the military, but many have told me about the challenges that still exist.

The need for the Military Separation Pay Fairness Act shows that the wrongs of bygone era have still not been righted. I applaud the efforts of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN, which continue to fight valiantly on behalf of the LGBT community for their equal rights.

After the policy was repealed, those discharged were given the opportunity to re-enlist, but we must address the issues facing transgender service members who are still suffering under their own version of “don't ask, don't tell.”

Although the military bars them from serving, a report by the Palm Center estimates there are 15,000 transgender service members who currently serve in secret. There are also another 130,000 transgender veterans in the civilian population who have previously served.

In May, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared on national television that “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.”

We already know transgender service members are qualified to do the jobs they are already doing. No one should have to lead double lives and be forced to lie to serve this nation. We moved past that for thousands of service members when “don't ask, don't tell” was repealed, but more action must be taken to open up the doors to the world’s finest military institutions so that all who are able to serve may serve.

This year, the LBGT community has much to celebrate: the demise of Arizona’s discrimination bill, challenges to marriage equality bans in the most surprising states in the union, and — most touchingly — the day-by-day changes of heart, in homes, offices, and places of worship everywhere, that have made such legal changes possible.

We must continue to advocate for our veterans as more and more of them are denied benefits and must seek harbor at homeless shelters, some cast aside by the military for their sexual orientation like Amanda was. The discrimination must come to an end, and the Military Separation Pay Fairness Act, currently with 40 co-sponsors, is just a small piece of a very big puzzle to help make whole again those who suffered it while serving in uniform.

 

CONGRESSWOMAN JACKIE SPEIER represents California’s 14th District.

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