November 12, 2019 at 4:35 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Cuomo signs law giving LGBTQ veterans access to N.Y. benefits

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill for LGBTQ veterans. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo)

On the day after Veterans Day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation giving service members who obtained “other than honorable” or “dishonorable” discharges for being LGBTQ access to state veterans benefits.

Although the DD-214 discharges can only be changed by the U.S. government, the new law — called the Restoration of Honor Act (S.45B/A.8097) — ensures service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or administrative bans on LGBTQ service have access to New York State benefits intended for veterans.

President Obama signed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 and the administrative ban on transgender service was lifted in his final year in office, but President Trump in 2017 reinstated the transgender military ban, which is currently in effect.

After signing the Restoration of Honor Act into law, Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday the measure is righting a wrong and “sending a message to LGBTQ veterans that we have their backs, just as they had ours.”

“Countless service members were discharged from the military simply because of who they are,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Adding insult to injury, they were then denied the services and benefits they earned as members of our armed forces who fought to protect our country and defend our ideals.”

The new law also restores benefits eligibility for veterans who received less than honorable discharges as a result of military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lynn Faria, executive director of the LGBT elder group SAGE, said in a statement the timing for Cuomo’s signature on the bill after Veterans Day was appropriate.

“Coming on the heels of Veterans Day, what a way to honor New York’s LGBT veterans,” Faria said. “For too long, LGBT service members put their lives on the line only to suffer in silence under military policies that took a tremendous toll. Older LGBT veterans especially bore the burden of hiding and have suffered because of their lack of access to critical benefits.”

Leading the bill in New York State Senate, which has a Democratic majority as a result of a “blue wave” in the 2018 election, was State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), the only openly gay lawmaker in the chamber.

“Even as gay and lesbian Americans have been able to openly serve in the military for nearly a decade, generations of LGBTQ Americans are still unable to access many veterans’ benefits due to the status of their military discharge,” Hoylman said in a statement.

According to Hoylman, his office conducted a study in 2015 revealing more than 50 New York State benefits are denied to LGBTQ veterans who were less than honorably discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression

In addition to signing the bill the day after Veterans Day, Cuomo also signed the bill the day after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed into law similar legislation in her state.

In Congress, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation called the Restore Honor to Service Members Act seeking to expedite the processing for updating the discharges for service members discharged for being LGBT to “honorable.”

The House approved an amendment along the lines of Pocan’s bill as part of its version of the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization bill, but that spending package seems to have stalled out in conference negotiations. It’s unclear whether any version of the defense authorization bill will be passed, let alone one inclusive of Pocan’s bill.

In previous years, the Pentagon has pushed back on legislation seeking to codify the process for updating the DD-214s for service members discharged for being LGBT on the basis that a system for changing the paperwork is already in place.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in Tuesday with the Pentagon seeking comment on legislation to codify the process and the number of service members discharged for being LGBT with “other than honorable” or “dishonorable” DD-214s.

Andy Blevins, a Navy veteran and executive director of the pro-LGBT Modern Military Association of America, said the new law is “powerful message of support for LGBTQ veterans who were kicked out of the military under deeply discriminatory policies.”

“New York is joining Rhode Island in leading by example to restore honor to LGBTQ veterans who deserve access to the benefits they earned honorably serving our nation,” Blevins added. “It’s important that Congress also take action to ensure these veterans also have access to their federal veterans benefits.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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