Rhode Island’s governor has ceremoniously signed legislation making it easier for veterans to get their state and local benefits if they were discharged from the military solely due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
"In the state of Rhode Island, if you're a veteran who's served, you oughta be eligible for veterans benefits that the state provides," Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, told local station WLNE-TV at Friday’s signing.
The bill, officially signed into law in June, will provide these veterans with a streamlined process to upgrade their discharge status to “honorable,” which in turn will permit them to receive state and local veteran benefits such as certain tax exemptions and tuition assistance.
“Far too many veterans have been discharged, shamed and left without the benefits they earned because of decades of a dehumanizing policy that said they couldn’t serve,” Rhode Island Sen. Dawn Euer, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “They deserved gratitude and honor, and we should be doing everything we can to ensure that these wrongs are righted and that they get the respect they deserve.”
Between World War II and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, an estimated 100,000 service members were less-than-honorably discharged due to their sexual orientation, according to a study from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. These “undesirable discharges” were not eligible for benefits such as the GI Bill or home loans for veterans.
While the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which forced gay service members to keep their sexual orientation hidden — was repealed in 2011, no countermeasure was created to amend the discharge status for those discharged as anything other than “honorable” due to their sexuality.
While Rhode Island’s bill will help gay and transgender veterans receive their state and local benefits, they — along with other LGBTQ veterans across the country — still face a “cumbersome process shrouded in mystery” to upgrade their discharge status, according to Andy Blevins, executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ service members and veterans.
“If an individual is discharged under 'don’t ask, don’t tell' with something less than honorable, like most of them were, they would not receive those benefits,” said Blevins, who helped Euer draft the Rhode Island legislation. “There was nothing enacted after 'don’t ask, don’t tell' that would give those benefits back, and that’s why what Rhode Island did is so incredible.”
Helen James Grace, for example, was discharged from the military in 1955 for being a lesbian. It wasn’t until 2018 — 63 years after her discharge and seven years after the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” that she got the news that her discharge status was finally “honorable”.
"I'm still trying to process it," she told NBC News back in January 2018, just after receiving her upgrade. "It was both joy and shock. It was really true.'"
For comprehensive change across the country, Blevins is advocating for legislation on the federal level that would automatically change the status of all gay veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation to “honorable.”
He said that of the 100,000 service members discharged, only 17,000 served under "don't ask don't tell," so it's essential that federal legislation helps all of the veterans who have been denied benefits.
“We’re working to make it clear that what happened to these folks isn’t equitable,” Blevins said.