The General Assembly has passed legislation introduced by Rep. Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick) and Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) that would extend veterans’ benefits to gay or transgender members of the armed forces who failed to receive honorable discharges.
The bill (2019-H 5443A, 2019-S 0837) would provide a petition process to have a discharge from service recorded as honorable for members of the armed services separated from the service with a general or other than honorable discharge due solely to their sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.
“While the military will now upgrade some of those undesirable discharges to ‘honorable’ status as long as there were no instances of misconduct, digging up decades-old records can be difficult and time-consuming — and it often takes years,” explained Representative Vella-Wilkinson, who serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Some of our LGBT vets who served during World War II, Korean or Vietnam wars choose to deny their service rather than answer prying questions. We don’t have the authority to reinstate federal benefits but Rhode Island can certainly take a bold, compassionate step to ensure state and local benefits are afforded to all our deserving patriots.”
By some estimates, as many as 100,000 service members were discharged for being gay between World War II and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many of these were given undesirable discharges, barring them from veterans’ benefits. Under the provisions of the legislation, the director of the Office of Veterans’ Affairs would provide a form certifying that the member’s discharge is to be treated as honorable.
“While the armed forces have fortunately stopped discharging members under the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, the current federal administration has renewed its attacks on our transgender service members. 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. 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,” said Senator Euer.
The measure now moves to the governor’s office.