LGBTQ Agenda: Pentagon proactively reviewing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'-era records

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 26, 2023
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Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks speaks to the media about the anniversary of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal and Defense Department efforts to correct records of veterans at the Pentagon, September 20, 2023. Photo: Air Force Tech Sergeant Jack Sanders, DOD
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks speaks to the media about the anniversary of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal and Defense Department efforts to correct records of veterans at the Pentagon, September 20, 2023. Photo: Air Force Tech Sergeant Jack Sanders, DOD

The United States Department of Defense has begun reviewing the records of veterans who were discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" without them needing to apply for a retroactive discharge upgrade.

The DADT policy, enacted during the Clinton administration, allowed gays, lesbians, and bisexual people to serve in the military as long as they remained closeted. Congress repealed DADT in December 2010 and that formally went into effect nearly a year later, on September 20, 2011.

Since then, however, many LGBTQ service members whose military careers were ended by the policy have had problems getting their other than honorable discharges upgraded. CBS News reported in February that many still do not have the honorable discharge status and benefits that conveys.

Now, the Pentagon is moving to correct that.

"We know correcting these records cannot fully restore the dignity taken from LGBTQ+ service members when they were expelled from the military," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks stated at a Pentagon news conference September 20. "It doesn't completely heal the unseen wounds that were left. It doesn't make people whole again, even for those many who received honorable discharges."

The switch to Defense Department review without service members having to apply for one marks a change in federal policy; previously, people had to first apply for a correction to their military records before it would be reviewed.

Hicks made the announcement on the 12th anniversary of the policy's repeal going into effect.

"When we find indications that someone's less-than-honorable discharge was due to their sexual orientation, we'll put their name forward to their respective military department's review board for consideration," Hicks said.

DADT was implemented as a compromise under the administration of then-President Bill Clinton in 1993. Clinton had campaigned on allowing lesbians, gays, and bisexual people to serve openly in the armed forces but met fierce resistance from Congress and military leaders. It changed a previous policy that banned non-heterosexuals from the military. Under DADT, people could not be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual in military service. Those who'd demonstrated "a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts ... create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability," the policy stated.

Transgender people had also been banned from serving in the military but that policy was reversed in 2016 by then-defense secretary Ash Carter, who served under then-President Barack Obama. However, President Donald Trump reinstituted the trans military ban after he took office in 2017. President Joe Biden issued an executive order rescinding that ban in January 2021.

CBS News reported last week that an unnamed defense department official said that after the initial review of records from the DADT era, the Pentagon was planning to look at the records of veterans who served before the policy was instituted.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated September 20, that "the Department values the contributions LGBTQ+ service members, veterans, and their families have made."

"For decades, our LGBTQ+ service members were forced to hide or were prevented from serving altogether," Austin stated. "Even still, they selflessly put themselves in harm's way for the good of our country and the American people. Unfortunately, too many of them were discharged from the military based on their sexual orientation — and for many this left them without access to the benefits and services they earned.

"Over the past decade, we've tried to make it easier for service members discharged based on their sexual orientation to obtain corrective relief," Austin added. "While this process can be difficult to navigate, we are working to make it more accessible and efficient. In the coming weeks, we will be initiating new outreach campaigns to encourage all service members and veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records."

These outreach campaigns include direct mail and a new website that has resources and a page of frequently asked questions for those who are seeking to have their discharges upgraded.

Hicks said that podcasts and webinars will be rolled out to explain how the upgrade process works and encourage those who are eligible to contact officials.

"This is yet another step we're taking to make sure we do right by those who served honorably despite being forced to hide who they are and who they love while serving the country they love. Even if the department didn't see it then, we see it now," she said.

Rachel Branaman, the interim executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, an LGBTQ veterans' affinity group, told the Bay Area Reporter that she's pleased with the move.

"We are very pleased with this proactive measure and hope that it will increase the rate of approved discharge upgrades within the DoD as many veterans were previously left with little recourse to access benefits they earned through their dedicated service to our country," Branaman stated.

Another LGBTQ veteran affinity group, American Veterans for Equal Rights, did not return a request for comment for this report as of press time.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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