It’s now going to be easier for LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive military veterans to access benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that veterans who’ve been given anything less than an honorable discharge strictly because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status will be eligible for the full slate of benefits unless there’s something else in their record that disqualifies them.
Kayla Williams, the VA’s assistant secretary for public affairs, made the announcement as part of the observance of the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which lesbian, gay, and bisexual troops had to be closeted. It’s not a change in policy but a clarification, she and other VA officials said, and VA Secretary Denis McDonough has issued new guidance on determining benefits eligibility.
Since DADT ended, veterans who were given a dishonorable or general discharge were eligible to apply for an upgrade to an honorable discharge in order to receive benefits. But many LGBTQ+ veterans have not applied for an upgrade because they thought the process would be too difficult, Williams said. Under the new guidance, they can apply for benefits without seeking the upgrade. Williams, who is bisexual, served in the closet under DADT.
About 14,000 LGB service members were discharged under DADT during the 17 years it was in force, 1994 to 2011. Others were discharged under the outright ban that preceded it. Out transgender service members stood at risk of discharge due to Donald Trump’s reinstatement of a ban that had been lifted under President Barack Obama’s administration, although most were grandfathered in during the Trump era; President Joe Biden has now lifted the ban on trans troops again. And some military personnel have been discharged for being HIV-positive.
“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 said. “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.”
GLAAD praised the VA’s move. “This historic move ends an unjust practice and creates a smoother pathway for lifesaving benefits like health care, pensions, and housing assistance to finally go to the LGBTQ service members as well as people with HIV who were discharged during and before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ only because of who they are,” GLAAD Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro said in a Monday press release. “On the 10-year anniversary of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ we honor LGBTQ service members who have long served with strength, dignity and pride. Today’s move from the VA will help so many LGBTQ and other veterans who were unjustly removed from service prior to the repeal.”
Benefits available to veterans include health care, home loan guaranty, pensions, homeless services, and more. The VA has just published a guide to services for health issues common among LGBTQ+ veterans.