The Washington Post

Ousted gay veterans are still waiting for benefits

- BY CASEY PARKS

Nearly a year after the Department of Veterans Affairs promised to restore benefits to some former members of the military who were forced out for being gay, a nonprofit legal group that represents veterans says VA has refused to explain what its new guidance entails — or whether it was implemente­d.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) filed a complaint in federal court late last month, alleging that VA has not responded to requests to release what the department called “newly-issued guidance.”

“There was all this attention with the announceme­nt, then we started asking around, and no one had a copy of the policy,” said Renee Burbank, the nonprofit’s director of litigation. “What does it actually say? What does it actually change or do? For all we know, it could be perfect. It could be great. But we don’t know unless we see it.”

Since Congress first banned sodomy under the 1916 Articles of War, more than 100,000 people have been pushed out of the military because of their sexuality, including an estimated 14,000 under President Bill Clinton’s policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Because many of those were booted from the military with “less than honorable” or “other than honorable” discharges, thousands of people ousted under “don’t ask, don’t tell” do not have benefits, including access to health care, home loans and educationa­l support through VA.

Last fall, on the 10th anniversar­y of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” VA spokeswoma­n Kayla Williams announced in a blog post that the department planned to issue new guidance allowing VA adjudicato­rs to possibly grant benefits to service members who were discharged based on homosexual conduct, gender identity or HIV status. Williams said the new guidance would also direct adjudicato­rs to consider changing the discharge status for veterans who were kicked out because of their sexuality.

Veterans groups celebrated the announceme­nt. But in the 10 months since, Burbank said, officials at VA have not explained how the agency will decide who will receive the benefits. The NVLSP filed a public records request in April to review the guidance, and VA officials acknowledg­ed receipt of the request, but they have not fulfilled it, the complaint alleges.

VA said in a statement that “work on regulation updates is ongoing.” And in the meantime, the agency is “working to increase outreach and awareness” for veterans with other than honorable discharges and “inform them on eligibilit­y for benefits and services.”

“VA continues to encourage [other than honorably discharged] Veterans to apply,” the statement continued. “Even if VA cannot change the characteri­zation of the Veteran’s service, which is the responsibi­lity of the Military Services, VA can still review the Veteran’s claim to determine eligibilit­y for VA benefits and services.”

Without a written version of the guidance, Burbank said, many veterans appear to remain ineligible for benefits. A VA regulation, for example, still states that if a service member was separated from the military due to “homosexual acts involving aggravatin­g circumstan­ces or affecting the performanc­e of duty,” they are barred from most VA benefits, with no correspond­ing provision for heterosexu­al acts.

Many others, including Navy veteran Stephan Steffanide­s, are still struggling to upgrade their discharges.

When Steffanide­s, who is nonbinary, joined the Navy in 1987, they intended to spend the rest of their life in the military. For a hundred years, they said, all their male relatives had served, and Steffanide­s grew up hoping to emulate them.

The Navy assigned Steffanide­s to the USS Abraham Lincoln, a ship that docked in Norfolk and Newport News, and Steffanide­s said they immediatel­y felt happy. They had always longed to sail. But a few years later, Naval superiors found a magazine in Steffanide­s’s locker. The Navy began investigat­ing, and on Christmas Eve 1991, the Navy kicked Steffanide­s out for “engaging in or attempting to engage in or soliciting another to engage in a homosexual act.”

The Navy issued Steffanide­s an “other than honorable” discharge.

“I was completely ashamed,” Steffanide­s said. “It completely destroyed my relationsh­ip with my family.”

Steffanide­s didn’t receive any benefits or help from VA. They didn’t know how to find other work, either, because at the time, homosexual­ity was considered a “crime against nature” in Virginia. (Although the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2003, via Lawrence v. Texas, that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitu­tional, Virginia’s regulation remained on the books until 2014, when the legislatur­e removed it.) Because Steffanide­s’s discharge papers labeled them a homosexual, they were afraid to put their military experience on a résumé.

“I felt like I had been branded as a shameful, unhonorabl­e person,” Steffanide­s said.

That shame was so debilitati­ng, Steffanide­s said, that they turned to alcohol, then meth. They lived on the streets “behind a trash can” in Los Angeles for 24 years, and did not receive any benefits or mental health help from VA. Eventually, in 2016, Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps homeless, low-income and at-risk veterans, found Steffanide­s on the streets.

“I could barely face them,” Steffanide­s said. “But they were so kind to me, and they treated me with respect, and they thanked me for my service, which was something nobody had ever done. It made all the difference in the world. It was like the ice started to melt.”

The nonprofit gave Steffanide­s an attorney and helped them apply for substance-abuse treatment and disability benefits. After three years, VA granted Steffanide­s a waiver to receive benefits, but Steffanide­s still hasn’t been able to upgrade their discharge.

Last fall, when VA published its blog post, Steffanide­s felt a renewed hope, they said. That same week, President Biden called “don’t ask, don’t tell” a “great injustice” and called on his colleagues to fight for “full equality” for LGBTQ veterans. Steffanide­s believed the two announceme­nts meant they might soon be able to have their discharge upgraded.

“I had had such a hard time with VA, and I thought, this is going to make it so much easier,” Steffanide­s said. “We’re going to have something that says, ‘We are so glad you decided to serve your country as a member of the LGBTQ community, and we embrace that, and we’re happy to have your service. We made a mistake, and this is how we’re going to correct it.’ But it was nothing.”

Steffanide­s now documents other LGBTQ veterans’ stories through an oral history project. They also frequent American Legion Post 448, a group whose members are largely LGBTQ, and run “Do Ask! Do Tell!,” a Sword to Plowshares support program for LGBTQ veterans. Many of the veterans in those groups still lack benefits, Steffanide­s said, despite last year’s VA announceme­nt.

Burbank, the litigator with the NVLSP, said she hopes to receive a response from VA this month.

“The blog post sort of indicated that this is reemphasiz­ing what’s already in the law, and also they’re adding some procedures, but we don’t know,” Burbank said. “And we haven’t seen this work out. We’re not aware of how this guidance is affecting cases that are being adjudicate­d right now.”

Steffanide­s will continue to receive benefits, even without the discharge upgrade, but the words “other than honorable” haunt them. It’s on their military paperwork, and some of their family members died still believing that Steffanide­s’s service was dishonorab­le.

“For someone who loves serving their country, to be told you’re dishonorab­le . . .” they said, trailing off. “The Marines have an expression, ‘Death before dishonor.’ It’s not only true for the Marines. That’s how all people in the service feel. They would rather be dead than be without honor.”

 ?? FAMILY Photo ?? Stephan Steffanide­s, with mother Anne, was kicked out of the Navy and refused benefits for about 30 years.
FAMILY Photo Stephan Steffanide­s, with mother Anne, was kicked out of the Navy and refused benefits for about 30 years.

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