President Joe Biden on Monday recognized the 10-year anniversary of the end of "don't ask, don't tell," a policy that forced gay, lesbian and bisexual military service members to hide their sexuality.
Then-President Bill Clinton signed the policy into law in 1993 as a compromise to end the existing ban on gay people serving. In total, over the 17 years the policy was in effect, an estimated 13,000 service members were discharged, according to data the military provided to The Associated Press.
In December 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed a repeal bill, but it didn't take effect until Sept. 20, 2011.
"Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American servicemembers," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. "It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."
Though an estimated 13,000 service members were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," the total number of service members discharged due to their sexual orientation or gender identity is estimated to be much higher: More than 100,000 are thought to have been forced out between World War II, when the U.S. first explicitly banned gay service members, and 2011, when "don't ask, don't tell" officially ended.
“As a U.S. Senator, I supported allowing servicemembers to serve openly, and as Vice President, I was proud to champion the repeal of this policy and to stand beside President Obama as he signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act into law,” the president said in Monday’s statement.
Biden said that many of those veterans received what are known as “other than honorable” discharges, which excluded "them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn."
In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a policy clarification on Monday stating that veterans who were given other than honorable discharges based on homosexual conduct, gender identity or HIV status may be eligible for VA benefits, such as home loan guaranty, compensation and pension, health care, homeless program and/or burial benefits, among others. The department said the clarification offers guidance to VA adjudicators and to veterans "who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies" who "have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous."
Biden added that he is honored to be commander in chief of the "most inclusive military in our nation's history," which he said welcomes LGBTQ service members. He noted that, during his first week in office, he repealed the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members enlisting and serving openly in the military.
He also said that under his administration, the military is led by LGBTQ veterans. For example, in July, the Senate confirmed Gina Ortiz Jones as under secretary of the Air Force, making her the first out lesbian to serve as undersecretary of a military branch.
It also confirmed Shawn Skelly as assistant secretary of defense for readiness, making her the first transgender person to hold the post and the highest-ranking out trans defense official in U.S. history.
Biden appointed Pete Buttigieg — who served as a Navy Reserve lieutenant in Afghanistan under "don't ask, don't tell" — as transportation secretary, making him the first openly gay Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate.
"On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation," Biden said in the statement.
He added that the country must "honor their sacrifice" and continue to fight for full equality for LGBTQ people, including by passing the Equality Act, which would provide the first federal protections from discrimination for LGBTQ people in employment, housing, education, public accommodations, credit and jury service, among other areas of life. The bill passed the House in April but has since stalled in the Senate.
During a news conference on Monday, Shalanda Baker, a former Air Force officer who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" 20 years ago, said the policy prevented her from seeking help while she was in an abusive relationship.
"I'll never forget my time at the academy or the early years thereafter when I struggled to find my footing in a military that did not accept the whole of me," said Baker, who is now a secretarial adviser on equity and deputy director for energy justice at the Department of Energy. "We cannot forget the lives of so many who walked the path just like mine. Those who risked and lost their lives for this country and who served in silence. I want to thank them for their service, so that it may never be forgotten."