In the late 1960s, being ousted could be life threatening, and even until the ‘90s and ‘00s, discrimination against gays in the military remained strong.
“When I served, if you were found out, your fellow service members would kill you. Literally,” said Denny Meyer, a Vietnam-era service veteran and national spokesperson for American Veterans for Equal Rights and the Transgender American Veterans Association. “With the anti-Vietnam war stuff, the general mentality in America was that, ‘Why would you want to serve?’ But there were patriots who always have wanted to serve, and being gay made no difference whatsoever.”
In an effort to “correct this legacy of injustice,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz drafted a bill entitled the Restore Honor to Service Members Act late last month.
The bill calls for the streamlining of the process to allow gay veterans that were discharged due to their homosexuality to remove discriminatory narratives from their discharge paperwork.
“The process of getting a discharge upgrade, from WWII until 1994 when being gay was just absolutely forbidden and you were immediately discharged, you had to go through so much bureaucracy,” Meyer said. “It was almost impossible. People got them, but it took 18 years.”
Russell Goeler, a Queens resident and veteran who was discharged for being gay, is looking forward to the change because he will no longer feel the need to hide his long-form discharge paperwork.
His papers indicate that his discharge was related to homosexuality.
“Whenever I would present my discharge papers anywhere, I always showed the short form, which did not include the discharge/re-enlistment code so that people wouldn’t know I was discharged for being gay,” Goeler said.
Although Goeler’s discharge was classified as General Under Honorable Condition, a status that enabled him to claim full veterans’ benefits, not all gay veterans have been so fortunate, according to Meyer.
“It depends on their CO, on their race and on their ethnicity whether they got an honorable discharge because it was up to the [Commanding Officer] to decide the characterization of the discharge and they could do whatever the hell they want,” Meyer said. “I was the one in the movement to notice that Black women were the ones getting less-than-honorable discharges in much higher proportion to their existence, which was 3 percent of the military.”
Meyer added that nearly 80 percent of less-than-honorable discharges are solely due to homosexuality.
Because this lack of systematic discharge protocol existed, Congressman Marty Meehan produced a comprehensive bill to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that provided accommodations to smooth the process of reparations for veterans discriminated against for past military homosexuality.
“It was pages long and full of all kinds of provisions to take care of all the little details including discharge upgrades for those already kicked out due to homosexuality,” Meyer said. “That bill failed because it was attached to the Defense Authorization Act, and they thought, ‘there’s no way they’ll strike this down.’ They did.”
From there, the whole bill was thrown out, and in a last-minute effort to ensure the policy was repealed, a skeleton bill was drafted that dropped all provisions except one that stated partner benefits were not guaranteed simply because openly gay service would become legal.
“Now, Democratic senators and congressmen are trying to catch up all the provisions that were left out, and one of those is the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which will automate and streamline the discharge upgrade process,” Meyer said. ”It also covers people who got honorable discharges but the paperwork says ‘due to homosexuality.’”
While Meyer will remain skeptical until the bill has been passed, he is hopeful for the future, and proud of the progress made by the movement in the past 50 years.
“There are 1.4 million living gay and lesbian veterans who have served in America’s armed forces from World War II to the present, and now we’re finally getting recognition, whereas before we used to have to hide despite the fact that we were sacrificing for our country,” Meyer said.