Testimony on Discharge Upgrades for Gay and Lesbian Veterans

On December 14, 2015, the NYC Veterans Alliance testified in favor of the NYC Council Committee on Veterans resolutions in support of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which is federal legislation proposing to automatically upgrade adverse discharges for veterans for no other reason than homosexual conduct, and New York Restoration of Honor Act, which would automatically extend NY State benefits for honorably discharged veterans to those adversely discharged for homosexuality.

Attendance at the hearing was much, much lower than at other Veterans Committee hearings, with the noteworthy absence of many VSOs and advocates. We encourage all VSOs, especially in NYC, to view issues related to our numerous LGBT veterans and their families as central to their mission as we do. The NYC Veterans Alliance holds that ALL veterans matter--and we leave no veterans behind.

We give special thanks to the organizations that did testify: American Veterans for Equal Rights, which has carried the fight for the rights of gay and lesbian veterans for more than 25 years; United War Veterans Council; Legal Services NYC; and NYU Langone's Military Family Clinic. This was the only advocate representation in the room. There were no other veterans or representatives from VSOs present in any show of support for the importance of justice for unfairly discharged LGBT veterans.

Congressman Charlie Rangel, who has sponsored the bill in Congress, and Brad Hoylman, who introduced the bill in the NY State Senate, both made time to attend and speak today. MOVA staff were present in an active show of support; agency testimony for hearings on resolutions is not customary.

Below is the testimony delivered by the NYC Veterans Alliance:

My name is Kristen L. Rouse, and I am speaking on behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance. I am a veteran of the United States Army, I served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and I have lived in Brooklyn since leaving active duty in 2007.

The U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for too many years enforced discrimination and second-class citizenship for gay and lesbian service members—and the policies preceding it were even worse. The injustices that men and women in uniform were forced to bear urged many to step forward and lead in the gay rights movement, going back as far as Henry Gerber, a veteran of both World War I and World War II, who founded the first gay civil rights group in the U.S. Later veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—like Frank Kameny, Dale Jennings, Don Slater, Arch Wilson, Jose Sarria, Miriam Ben-Shalom, Leonard Matlovich, and so many others—would lead and propel the gay rights movement that would eventually achieve the progress we see today. Harvey Milk enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and served on submarines and as a dive instructor, and later rose to fame as a gay rights activist, serving as one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. before he was assassinated in 1978.

Yet despite the strength of these veterans who succeeded after their service—the personal damages from unjust policies and enforced discrimination have been impossible to quantify. Far too many men and women suffered during their years of service, having to hide who they were not only for fear of dishonorable or “bad paper” discharges, but also out of fear of discrimination, mistreatment, and violence. Service members Allen Schindler and Barry Winchell were murdered by members of their own units because they were believed to be gay. Other service members have been raped, brutalized, coerced, or otherwise forced to suffer in silence because of their sexual orientation.

I personally served for seventeen years under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, and while I knew others who suffered far worse than I did, my active service was characterized by social isolation. If I wanted to steer clear of being betrayed by my military colleagues and not experience the investigations, inquiries, and discharge proceedings, I couldn’t let members of my unit know much about me. I internalized harassment and the near-daily slanders of gay and lesbian people that were part of my work environment as simply the price I had to pay for serving my country. I was and remain proud of my military service, but for seventeen years—including two of my three tours in Afghanistan—I was told that unit cohesion would suffer if the military ever accepted openly gay people. Yet we were the ones who suffered under this policy. We learned that if we wanted to serve our country honorably, if we wanted to do our jobs and get promoted, if we wanted to endure the harassment and discrimination—we could never fully trust our own unit members, and we had to accept that we were less than equal, or at least be silent about it. If we could ever learn how many gays and lesbians have actually served, or the true statistics showing the consequences of unjust policy—such as rates of sexual assault, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), or elevated risk of suicide—I believe it would be simply staggering.

All of this is to say that the Restore Honor to Service Members Act and the New York Restoration of Honor Act must be seen as just the beginning of restoring justice for gay and lesbian service members and veterans. Automatic upgrades are important, but they won’t reverse the damage done. There are still too many cases that won’t be upgraded because of aggravating charges, like when a service member fought back, went AWOL, or otherwise behaved in ways that responded to enforced discrimination, coercion, sexual violence, or other unreasonable and unjust conditions. And the ban on transgender personnel that even today remains in place only continues the same damage and injustice that gay and lesbian personnel faced for generations. Add to that the fact that VA healthcare providers still show little or no understanding of what gay and lesbian service members have faced, why gay and lesbian veterans remain at higher risk for suicide, and are an underserved population for healthcare because of continued discrimination. And it also must be noted here that as recent as 2010, when many of us looked for support from VSOs, the American Legion and VFW made clear that they did not support gay and lesbian service members and veterans when national leadership took positions opposing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and they are also not here today for this hearing. Gay, lesbian, and transgender veterans still struggle for acceptance even within the veterans community.

In summary, the NYC Veterans Alliance strongly supports these resolutions calling on Congress and the NY State legislature to pass bills that begin to restore justice for gay and lesbian service members and veterans. But these resolutions must also take into account that these bills are just the beginning—and that much work is yet to be done for veterans still suffering in silence as a result of their military service.

On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.