Restoring Honor to LGBT Veterans

Congress's repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a watershed moment that ended institutionalized discrimination unjustly targeting gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. Yet thousands of service members who were discharged because of their sexual orientation still bear the scars of that discrimination. We have introduced a bill called the "Restore Honor to Service Members Act" that would finally correct the record and properly honor our gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.

Since the Second World War, more than 100,000 service members are estimated to have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation, many with less-than-honorable discharges that have barred them from the benefits that they earned. Without a bill to protect these veterans, thousands of Americans who risked their lives to serve this country will continue to be denied access to the GI Bill and veterans' health care, and they will have a more difficult time finding civilian employment. Even those whose discharges were deemed "honorable" still face a high risk of discrimination. Many times, the reason for their discharge may indicate their sexual orientation, threatening their privacy when they share their paperwork with employers and landlords who may use that information to deny them a job or housing, either overtly or under a false pretense.

For the tens of thousands discharged before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" went into effect in 1994, it is nearly impossible to prove that they were discriminated against and discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation. The military did not openly admit its prejudice against gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, but it still used sexual orientation to decide that many service members were unfit to serve, and kicked them out. For many of these veterans, there was no additional aggravating circumstance surrounding their other-than-honorable discharge -- only sexual orientation -- yet since this discrimination is often not captured in a service member's record, it is difficult to correct.

The Department of Defense has already begun working to give service members who were discharged solely because of their sexual orientation the chance to restore their records to reflect their honorable military service. However, that process remains onerous for many service members, often requiring them to retain legal counsel to navigate red tape and produce paperwork that they may not have. Moreover, there is no legal requirement that the appeals process always remain available to gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans seeking corrective action.

Our bill would turn the Defense Department's temporary policy into permanent law. And while we believe that the bar to prove one's military service should remain high, it would simplify the paperwork requirement necessary for service members to initiate a review, making it clear that the lack of documentation cannot be used as the basis for denying a review. Finally, it would require the historians of each military service to review cases where service members were discharged for their sexual orientation before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." This would improve the historical record that the Defense Department can use to help gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans correct their records.

We are in the middle of a historic moment for gay rights in America. We have struck down "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and we have legalized same-sex marriage. Now, let us restore the honor that is long overdue to our gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. Congress should pass this bill and give our veterans the clean, honorable record they deserve.

This was a joint oped by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the original sponsors of the "Restore Honor to Service Members Act" which has 109 cosponsors, including four Republicans in the House and 37 cosponsors in the Senate.​ It was originally published on USAToday.