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For LGBT Service Members, the Battle Isn't Over


Integration of LGBT service members was just the first step in bringing parity to our armed services, writes Matt Thorn of OutServe-SLDN.

One hundred thousand LGBT men and women are currently serving our country through the armed forces; among them are approximately 15,000 individuals that identify as transgender. Our community's veteran population is made up of an even larger number. As advocates and legal support staff, OutServe-SLDN is proud to be the only national organization that provides these LGBT service members, veterans, and their families with free, confidential, and high-level legal services; we are their front line of defense. It is our mission is to protect them from the incoming inferno of legislative actions, Department of Defense directives, Veterans Affairs policies, and adverse applications of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that might otherwise undermine their position and their service.

Since 1993, alongside our pro bono legal partners, we have responded to over 13,000 requests for assistance. We've stood with every soldier, sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman and airman who's had the courage to serve with dignity and fight for full equality. On their behalf, we've challenged generals within the halls of the Pentagon, we've sued the federal government in the court systems, and we've stormed Capitol Hill to bring an end to "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act. Today, we continue those services and are prepared to assist all members of the LGBT military and veteran community with all of their legal needs; from basic information requests to unwavering advocacy before their chain of command, and from rectification of their service and discharge records to a full battery of litigation support.

That legal firepower is currently being brought to bear in the case of Lt. Col. Ken Pinkela, who was wrongfully dismissed from the Army after the Judge Advocate General ruled, without evidence, that he had transmitted HIV to a fellow service member. Aside from the injustice against modern science's advancements in HIV research, this decision was an inequitable wrong against a soldier with more than a decade of honorable service. We are fighting to correct Pinkela's record and restore earned benefits, including enrollment in the VA's health care program.

We were proud to push forward in the case of Melvin Dwork, who enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman in 1942. While stationed at Parris Island, he treated service members wounded on the front lines during World War II before being accepted to Officer Candidate School two years after his enlistment. He decided to attend the Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston. As a gay man, he continued to serve in silence while in medical school. Military police ultimately intercepted a letter sent to his lover; he was deemed a "deviant" by psychiatrists, tossed into the brig, and discharged as an "undesirable" sailor. For nearly seven decades, Dwork attempted to correct his discharge records. In 2011, with the help of our organization, this sailor finally saw his discharge correctly represented, as the Board for Corrections of Naval Records recognized the honorable nature of his service and upgraded his "uncharacterized" discharge to "honorable."

We have also been proud to serve our fighting men and women in ways that lie outside the judicial and military infrastructures. Earlier this year, we worked with financial institution USAA to correct the name on loan documents of a trans service member, who had previously secured name and gender marker changes in both his military and civilian identification documents. We're continuing our persistent advocative campaign to realize a more permanent, consistent policy, supporting our transgender service members, veterans, and military family members, at financial institutions that serve our LGBT military community.

Currently, we are managing more than 90 active cases. The vast majority of the veterans that have contacted us have done so in hopes of correcting the characterization of their discharge to a fully "honorable" status. Another handful of these cases were brought forward to correct names and gender markers in the service records of trans veterans to ensure they are not "outed" and subject to the discrimination of civilian employers (or their own banks) when presenting their record of their service to this nation. We are working to clear the names of two service members who are being wrongly punished for violating "HIV orders" and to eliminate the offensive and stigmatizing "HIV orders" themselves by demanding that the surgeon general of each branch accepts the science confirming that one can be HIV-positive and fit for duty. We are assisting several individuals living with HIV and are also holding the line against sexual harassment in the barracks and within individual chains of command.

Among all LGBT organizations, we at OutServe-SLDN are uniquely prepared for these battles. Every day we contend with the nation's largest corporation, where nearly unlimited power is invested in the commander in chief, where all policy is made by executive order or directive, and where those who serve have a duty to comply. It doesn't take an active imagination to see the threat we oppose. Most recently, the president of the United States nominated as his secretary of the Army a man who was an enemy combatant of the LGBT community. Mark Green was unfit for duty. We were unafraid to face such a foe, and we are happy to see him defeated.

To protect the many thousands we serve requires more than rear-guard actions. We will not retreat. We will press the advantages of the past eight years and gain new ground. We will fight for the promotion of LGBT commanders and for the promotion of military leaders who support us. We will fight for the hearts and minds of military brass who have yet to accept who we are. We will fight for full recognition of trans service members on every base and at every post in the world. We will fight for the rights of military spouses in allied countries where their loved ones are fighting for the freedoms we all cherish at home. And we will fight the naked bigotry in American states where LGBT families continue to be targeted.

We have been called out to serve, and it is our privilege to serve until the battle is won.

MATT THORN is the executive director of OutServe-SLDN.

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