According to state and county legislators, an estimated 114,000 service members were discharged from the U.S. military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity between World War II and the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This has left them without more than 50 state programs, benefits and tax breaks that are contingent on a veteran’s discharge status.
Legislation to restore those benefits in New York, introduced last November by State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-27), has languished in the committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs since January. Federally, a bill introduced four months earlier by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and co-sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York has been stalled in the Senate Committee on Armed Services since the day it was introduced. Similar legislation, introduced by Gillibrand in 2013, which sought to ensure benefits for same-sex spouses, was reintroduced in early 2015 but never made it to the floor for a vote.
In Albany County, a handful of legislators have decided not to wait any longer for the state and federal government to act and are working to ensure that LGBT veterans are at least able to access county-level benefits.
Legislators Andrew Joyce (D-9), Lynne Lekakis (D-8), Bryan Clenahan (D-30), Raymond Joyce (D-13), Allison McLean Lane (D-14), Gary Domalewicz (D-10), Christopher Higgins (D-5), Douglas Bullock (D-7) and Joanne Cunningham (D-34) have introduced a measure that would outline a process for any LGBT veteran who was discharged due to their sexual orientation to begin receiving benefits available to honorably discharged veterans in Albany County. These benefits include a property tax exemption, civil service points and the opportunity to participate in the county’s Return the Favor discount program.
“I’ve served side-by-side with LGBT veterans in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Staten Island during Superstorm Sandy,” said Andrew Joyce, lead sponsor of the bill. “We’ve come a long way in our society towards equality, and it’s time our policies reflected that.”
According to Joyce, the legislation would ensure that any veteran whose discharge under or before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was classified as less than honorable due solely to their sexual orientation or gender identity are not impeded from receiving county benefits for which they would otherwise be eligible. Any LGBT veteran who was other than honorably discharged from the military are encouraged to provide, in writing, the details surrounding the nature of their discharge to the staff at the Albany County Veteran’s Services Bureau. The bureau would review their case, and based on the information provided, would make a determination on their eligibility.
“The DADT policy was sanctioned discrimination” said McLean-Lane. “They have fought to preserve our freedoms, including freedom from discrimination. Now, we are obligated to fight for them.”
Anyone interested in learning more information about the treatment of LGBT service members under and prior to DADT can access Hoylman’s 2015 Restoration of Honor report at the state Senate website.
“For over two centuries, the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members in the United States military was one of repression, deception, and fear,” reads the introduction. “For the vast majority of our nation’s history, patriotic service members willing to risk their lives in service of their country faced everything from criminal penalties to an unceremonious discharge solely due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”