BY WINNIE McCROY | A new piece of New York State legislation that passed the Senate and Assembly this month seeks to amend a passel of laws that would help veterans dishonorably discharged from the service for being LGBTQ. In addition to restoring their honor for serving our country, the legislation would also serve to restore their pensions, military benefits, healthcare and a host of other rights, from the GI Bill to soldier burial plots. It’s part of a larger package of LGBTQ equality measures.
“Fifty years ago, we saw the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. We have not stopped fighting since,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Brad Hoylman. “Just one year ago today, any bill containing the letters LGBTQ would be automatically denied a hearing. Now, thanks to the leadership of Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and my colleagues, we’re passing legislation to help LGBTQ New Yorkers build families, ban a vestige of homophobia in the criminal statute, allow LGBTQ vets get the benefits they deserve. There is no more fitting tribute to the legacy of Stonewall and those who fought that day to be seen and recognized for who they were as LGBTQ New Yorkers. We owe it to them to keep fighting, and must resolve to do so until all LGBTQ people across our state are fully protected under the law.”
Senate Bill S45B (S.45-A/A.8097), known as The Restoration of Honor Act, would restore state benefits to LGBTQ veterans discharged due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. The legislation also restores eligibility to those who received less than honorable discharges as a result of military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Since World War II, an estimated 114,000 U.S. servicemembers have been discharged from the military because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
S45B would also benefit a number of others who served, including those who worked for the War Shipping Administration, United States Coast Guard, and even some civilian Pan American World Airways employees who served under the contract with the Air Transport Command or Naval Air Transport Service in the 1940s.
As Sen. Hoylman told CCN, “Our LGBTQ service members fought for our country. They deserve to have a country that fights for them, too. In 2015, I released a report identifying dozens of New York State veteran programs and benefits for which LGBTQ veterans who had been discharged from military service due to their sexual orientation or gender identity were not eligible. That’s unacceptable—and with the passage of the Restoration of Honor Act through both houses, we are on the path to finally giving these veterans the recognition and honor they deserve. I’m grateful for the partnership of Assembly Members Barrett and Buchwald and look forward to the Governor signing the bill into law as soon as possible.”
The Real-Life Impact of The Legislation
This legislation will have a direct impact on the lives of many New Yorkers. From the Edie Windsor SAGE Center in Midtown, “Sam” waits anxiously to see if the legislation will pass so he can take steps toward receiving the Military Service Credit that would increase his pension. Although Sam served honorably for five years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, his DD214 states his reason for discharge as “homosexual acts.”
“On the state level, this legislation would allow me to buy back three years of time, which would increase my pension about six percent,” Sam told CCN. “That would be the most direct gain.”
But this discriminatory language hasn’t just hurt Sam’s pride—it also hurt his chances to have a better career in the private sector. Without an Honorable Discharge, it’s difficult to get jobs that require security clearances, from contractors to cops. It also proves to be a stumbling block to better employment opportunities and promotions.
SAGE connected Sam with the Veteran Advocacy Project, which began the three-year process to apply for the change in his discharge. He said he met with them last Friday to finalize the paperwork, which will then be sent in to the Navy Discharge Review Board.
“The VAP had me fill out forms and give a brief description of what happened. They have my service record, so they put together an appeal which, if successful as desired, would allow me to obtain veteran’s benefits that I would not otherwise have had, including a small burial marker,” Sam told Chelsea Community News, further noting, “I’m older now, and sadly, this legislation would have been much more important when I was dropkicked to the curb at 31 years old. Medical care would have made me eligible for more VA benefits. It would have given me four more years of education under the GI Bill. An Honorable Discharge would have allowed me to obtain the higher clearance levels you need to work in defense, but as long as I had a bad discharge, I wouldn’t be able to work at Northrop making stealth aircraft.”
While in the Navy, Sam served as a disbursing officer, an Internal Revue officer, in data processing and in food service. After the military, Sam said he worked as a contractor for Shell, looking for oil in the Gulf of Mexico; and for North American Aviation/Rockwell International on the B1-B Bomber parts provisioning team. In the ’80s, he took a job with Convair Division of General Dynamics in San Diego, where he started volunteering for the San Diego AIDS Project. This led to his work with the People With AIDS Coalition of Jacksonville, Florida. He wound up in New York City by accident, got a job with the New York State Insurance Fund, and has been here for about 20 years. But as Sam says, “Life is the kind of thing that doesn’t always take you exactly where you think it will.”
“If I had an Honorable Discharge,” Sam speculated, “I would probably still be grinding away at one of these high-clearance companies, because it’s kind of interesting work. Or I could have become a police officer or something. A lot of times, the impact of this policy is very subtle.”
SAGEVets, a New York State Program for LGBT veterans over the age of 50, said that in addition to his increased pension and burial marker, this legislation could make Sam eligible for enrollment in a state veteran retirement home, a veterans temporary hiring program, and the veterans tuition award. Former servicemembers are eligible for a wide array of services, including VA medical access, a hearing aid, the GI Bill, federal and state employment, an opportunity to serve in the Reserves or National Guard, full pensions, VA death benefits, NEX (Navy Exchange) and PX (Post Exchange) shopping privileges, and more. At least 53 New York State programs and benefits for veterans are contingent upon discharge status.
Still, Sam was fortunate—he obtained an HHA (Home Health Aide) certificate, became a nurse, and was able to find work, even when his military experience hindered other private-sector employment and promotions. This has allowed him to survive without relying as heavily on SAGE programs as others might.
“SAGE does great work, but I haven’t had to avail myself of all of their programs, because I was steadily employed all my life,” said Sam. “I know how to operate computers, but for many people at SAGE, [their computer instruction] is a great resource. Their evening meal is a good deal for just a couple of bucks. And up until my eyes started bothering me, I went there for yoga classes, too. They offer a lot of benefits and I’m glad they’re there for people.”
Honoring Those Who Served
Another veteran who champions the work of SAGE is John Connors, a Navy man who Sen. Hoylman recently inducted into the New York State Veteran’s Hall of Fame. Connors, a Navy Hospital Corps man during Vietnam, was lucky. He got an Honorable Discharge in 1973, at the end of his four years of service. He was able to use his GI Bill benefits to attend art school, and is now an artist. In fact, his art show “Homoneurotics and Other Narratives” currently hangs on the walls of the Edie Windsor SAGE Center for Pride Month.
“I was not as much in danger of being kicked out because I was an aircrew corpsman for helicopter Medivac,” Connors said. “They were needed. The Vietnam War had not really ended yet. But after the war, they kicked a lot of guys out they knew were gay. My friends were in different situations.”
In 1973, President Jimmy Carter offered those who were kicked out of the armed forces for reasons like protesting the war to get their benefits restored. A number of Connors’ friends who identified as gay were also able to take advantage of this short-lived legislation.
“I knew two guys, both gay but technically not kicked out for that, who did this,” Connors said. “The one guy was constantly picked on and went AWOL. But they completed their paperwork to change their status, and both of them ended up using the GI Bill to go to school. That’s the most important benefit restored, because if you can get an education, you will have such a better life.”
“For me, it meant being able to go to the VA Hospital, because after four years I had hearing damage from working with helicopters. They give me hearing aids, check my eyes, and provide me with a doctor’s visit once a year, so I’m in good shape. Those kinds of benefits are very important for someone who is in a marginal situation,” Connors added.
For Connors, it’s about more than just pensions or high-level clearance jobs. It comes down to self-respect.
“I think the time is right for this, especially with gay Pride,” Connors said. “The consciousness of the country has changed so much, it’s enormous. I went into the military in 1969 and things are so different now. And I don’t know how much this legislation covers those who were gay but left AWOL, like my friend in the Marine Corps. When they found out he was gay, they broke his nose; the Marines are pretty tough. But worse yet, after they dishonorably discharged him, his parents wouldn’t let him back in the house. The military can be tough, but it’s different times now, and I think it’s only fair people should get a second chance.”
Sam noted that he was an officer, “when they drummed me out of the Navy. Basically, they wanted to hurt me—and they did that. Luckily, I’m a strong person and got through it. Because the same heat that melts butter can make steel.”
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