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Congress is taking a good first step to address the mistreatment of LGBT veterans

The U.S. has long mistreated LGBT soldiers — and denied them veterans benefits

The grave of Leonard P. Matlovich, the first gay service member to fight the military's ban. He died in 1988 of complications from HIV/AIDS and is buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On Jan. 21, Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the Armed Services Committee; and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), chair of the subcommittee on military personnel, asked the Department of Defense to “conduct a historical review of service by LGBTQ+ military personnel,” including the effects of policies requiring discharge of these troops.

This came on the heels of the Department of Veterans Affairs announcing in September that it would restore access to benefits to veterans who received other than honorable discharges because of their sexual orientation. These are two critical steps toward addressing discrimination that harmed an estimated 100,000 or more veterans discharged for homosexuality between World War II and the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Fully redressing these wrongs may be impossible. But the study requested by Takano, Smith and Speier is an important step toward addressing their present ramifications and identifying what, if any, action the government can take to ameliorate their harmful legacies.

Gay Americans were technically prohibited from military service during World War II, although many served nonetheless. Psychiatric screening at induction centers included questions about homosexuality, seeking to identify and disqualify gay recruits from the outset. But being disqualified from military service because of homosexuality was highly stigmatizing, with the potential to devastate a recruit’s civilian life, so many did not answer truthfully. Additionally, some inductees answered honestly based on the specific wording of the questions they were asked (for example, some reported being asked whether they “liked girls”), others may not have thought of themselves as gay until after they were already in the service, and occasionally some answered that they had experienced attraction to the same sex but were not actually disqualified, in part because of officials’ concerns that declarations of homosexuality were a means of evading the draft.

Once in the armed forces, however, even suspicion of being gay could be grounds for discharge, and it threatened access to veterans benefits. The key question was how the military categorized a service member’s discharge.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — the vaunted GI Bill — promised an array of benefits to veterans, most importantly cheap government-backed home mortgages and tuition for college or vocational school. Theoretically, most veterans were eligible for these benefits; the law itself barred only those who had been dishonorably discharged. However, VA (then a non-Cabinet level agency called the Veterans Administration) interpreted the law so as to bar veterans who had received “blue discharges,” so named because they were printed on blue paper, that were neither honorable nor dishonorable.

Commanders frequently issued “blue discharges” for suspected homosexuality, and they also went disproportionately to Black soldiers. (Legislation introduced in the House and Senate would address the racial inequalities in Black veterans’ abilities to obtain GI Bill benefits.)

Because individual cases could be reconsidered based on their facts, many veterans accused of homosexuality sought help from veterans’ and civil rights organizations to appeal their discharges or obtain upgrades. But they found little success as appeals processes typically determined that the discharges had not violated procedure.

Although the Army stopped issuing blue discharges shortly after World War II, individuals who had received them did not receive automatic upgrades, and VA continued to view these veterans as ineligible for benefits. Furthermore, homosexuality remained a reason to discharge someone for “unfitness” or “unsuitability.”

Importantly, personnel separations were rarely dispassionate administrative processes; they were investigations, many of which were extremely extensive and invasive. The records of these investigations were often hundreds of pages long and were frequently classified. They could include interrogations by military police, witness statements and other elements of criminal investigations, such as stakeouts or polygraph tests.

Frequently these investigations occurred with either an explicit or implicit threat of a court-martial — for sodomy, “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline,” obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation or any other violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that the investigation may have uncovered — dangling over the head of the accused. Investigators could leverage this possibility to get admissions of homosexuality, even when the accused ultimately faced no charges.

For example, the 1953 Army regulation governing “Separation of Homosexuals” outlined three categories for accused soldiers. Class II referred to “true or confirmed homosexual personnel,” who were accused of engaging in “homosexual acts” or attempts at such acts but who were not accused of doing so by force or without consent (distinguishing this category from Class I). Class II offenders could be brought to court-martial but were offered the option to resign instead. To avoid a trial, enlisted personnel who had served less than three years had to sign a statement accepting an undesirable discharge under conditions other than honorable. The statement required acknowledging they might “be deprived of many rights as a veteran under both Federal and State legislation” and that they could “expect to encounter substantial prejudice in civilian life” if or when the nature of their discharge was revealed.

But facing the threat of criminal trial and potential imprisonment, many soldiers signed this acknowledgment.

The regulations about homosexuality changed several times in the 1950s and 1960s and were often extremely vague, as military leaders struggled to define something that evaded definition. The notoriously nebulous term “homosexual tendencies” abounded in personnel regulations for decades, providing wide berth for accusations and prompting complaints that it was insufficiently specific to mandate separation.

Then in 1982, after a series of legal challenges to the earlier regulations, the Defense Department revised Directive 1332.14 to state bluntly, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” This directive sought to define homosexuality more clearly and to bar gay service members more unambiguously. The regulation defined “homosexual,” “bisexual” and the term “homosexual act” and mandated separation for a member “who has stated that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual unless there is a further finding that the member is not a homosexual or bisexual.” (How such a further finding might be accomplished was not clear.)

Even as the regulations changed, however, one notion remained consistent: the idea of homosexuality as something to be investigated criminally. According to a report published in 1992 by the General Accounting Office (its name at the time; now the Government Accountability Office), between 1986 and 1990, the armed forces conducted an average of 732 criminal investigations related to homosexuality per year. The ban disproportionately affected women, whose representation was growing during this period; from fiscal years 1980 to 1990, women were only 10 percent of all military personnel, but they were 23 percent of the 16,919 people discharged for homosexuality.

Such discharges continued to result in the involuntary loss of careers, income and potential retirement benefits, subjected veterans to stigma from the reason for discharge listed on their paperwork and jeopardized the veterans benefits of those who received “other than honorable” discharges. Countless service members suffered these detriments solely because of their sexuality, or accusations about their sexuality.

Although sexual orientation is no longer a valid reason for discharge, the harms to veterans who experienced these discriminatory policies, as well as to the individuals these policies excluded from military service entirely, are ongoing and largely irreparable. Yet the historical review requested by Takano, Smith and Speier can help uncover this history, determine its present ramifications and identify, what, if any, action the government can take to rectify this past wrong.