over 29,000 lgbtq service members were denied honorable discharges
The extent of the U.S. military’s decades-long discrimination against gay and lesbian service members has recently come to light thanks to new statistics shared exclusively with News. They show that more than 29,000 people who were discharged because of their sexual orientation were not given honorable discharges.
The military has never previously shared a detailed breakdown of how many people were denied honorable discharges during and before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when gays and lesbians were prohibited from serving at all. Estimates have long suggested that approximately 14,000 service members were separated from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that banned gay men and women from serving openly from 1994 to 2011.
The new information, which News received from Legal Aid At Work after making a Freedom of Information Act request, covers the three decades from 1980 to 2010 when the federal courts lifted the ban on gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The information states that 35,801 people “received a discharge or separation because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct, sexual perversion, or any other related reason from the period October 1, 1980, to September 20, 2011.” In 81% of those cases, honorable discharges were rejected in favor of a general discharge, another discharge, a discharge for misbehavior, or a dishonorable discharge.
The military has recently provided conflicting numbers, underscoring the long-standing uncertainty regarding the number of affected service members. When News contacted the Defence Department regarding the new data, officials there produced different numbers from its Office of Legal Policy indicating that between 1970 and 2011, most service members who were separated due to homosexual behavior were discharged under honorable conditions.
The department provided a partial breakdown after being asked for more information: 23,392 honorable discharges, 11,023 general discharges under honorable conditions, and 5,374 uncharacterized discharges. Statistics on the harshest types of discharges were not included.
While the reasons for the disparity between the data from the Defence Department’s Office of Legal Policy and that division’s Freedom of Information Division are unknown, experts told News that it is unsurprising. Since the military itself lacks clarity and transparency, academics, activists, and lawmakers have argued over how to count and identify these people.
According to Elizabeth Kristen, the director of Legal Aid At Work’s Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights Programme, “the numbers confirm the magnitude of the discrimination and injustice suffered by so many service members who joined our Armed Forces in the hope of honorably serving our country.” It also quantifies the significant number of service members who suffer from the negative stigma associated with a discharge status other than an honorable discharge, which affects their eligibility for the benefits that this nation has determined are appropriate to offer to all other veterans.
The U.S. military hasn’t taken any proactive steps to track down and reexamine instances where service members were found guilty of crimes and given felony records for engaging in same-sex relationships. While some military laws explicitly forbade homosexual behavior, other laws were used as justifications to kick gay men and women out of the military, so these figures might only represent a small portion of the true toll.
Undisputed is the fact that very few of these veterans were able to receive an honorable discharge. Only 1,375 people have received relief in the form of a discharge upgrade or record correction, according to the most recent data available.
The Human Rights Campaign’s vice president for government affairs, David Stacy, called the figures “sobering” and urged the Pentagon to review its discharge upgrade procedure.