A group of LGBTQ+ veterans discharged under the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (“DADT”) policy and similar earlier policies filed a class action lawsuit August 8 against the U.S. Department of Defense seeking to end ongoing discrimination perpetuated by their discharge papers.
The lawsuit seeks the removal of narratives and separation codes that disclose the veteran’s sexual orientation and, when needed, seeks upgraded discharge statuses for tens of thousands of veterans discharged under DADT and its predecessor policies. The plaintiffs are Sherrill Farrell, Steven Egland, James Gonzales, Jules Sohn, and Lilly Steffanides.
According to the Department of Defense, more than 35,000 service members were discharged for their actual or perceived sexual orientation between 1980 and 2011. Many of these veterans received discharge paperwork, including a Form DD-214, that identifies their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Many also received discharge characterizations other than “Honorable” due to their sexual orientation. The discharge paperwork given to these veterans perpetuates discrimination by violating these veterans’ constitutional rights to privacy, due process, and equal protection under the law.
As outlined in the complaint, such discharges have significant long-term effects on the lives of veterans, continuing a cycle of discrimination against LGBTQ+ veterans. A veteran’s DD-214 serves as their primary record of service. For those discharged because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, proving their military service – for instance, in applying to subsequent jobs or applying for certain benefits – effectively amounts to “outing” their sexual orientation due to the discriminatory narratives and/or separation codes on their DD-214. Moreover, many veterans received discharges that were characterized as something other than Honorable and, as a result, are barred from accessing many of the critical benefits available to veterans with Honorable discharges. These include vital veteran services such as health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, funding for higher education, home loan financing, job benefits and more.
“My family has a long and proud tradition of military service — my father served in the Air Force for more than 20 years and my grandfather was an officer in the Army during World War II,” said Farrell (she/her), U.S. Navy Veteran. “Even as a young child, I longed to carry on my family’s legacy. It was an honor to serve in the U.S. Navy, although my service was cut short when I was discharged with an Other Than Honorable status because of my sexual orientation. This was devastating to me and has always made me feel as though my service was less valuable than heterosexual veterans. Today, I am proud of my country and proud of who I am. I feel I have the opportunity to serve my country again by seeking justice for other LGBTQ+ veterans so that we receive the same honor and respect.”
“I have dedicated my life to service, first in the U.S. Marine Corps and today in the Los Angeles Police Department,” said Sohn (she/they), U.S. Marine Corps Veteran. “I believe that part of service is standing up for what is right. That is why I publicly spoke out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, even though it led to my discharge from the Marine Corps. And that is what I hope to do today by filing this lawsuit – standing up so that other LGBTQ+ veterans are afforded the full dignity and honor for their service and sacrifices for this country.”
“Because of the circumstances and language of my discharge, which served as a painful reminder of the trauma I experienced, I was never able to proudly say that I served my country,” explained Egland (he/him), U.S. Army Veteran. “For many years I never disclosed my service in the military. Having an updated DD-214 would bring me so much healing and would restore my own pride in my service to this country. I believe every veteran deserves this, regardless of their sexual orientation. Our government and leaders have long acknowledged that the military’s discrimination against LGBTQ+ service members – and what was done to me – was wrong. The time has come to rectify it by correcting our records. All of those who served deserve to have documents that reflect the honor in our service.”
“Following my Other Than Honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, which was accompanied by terrible harassment on my ship, I experienced homelessness and shame,” recalled Steffanides (they/them), U.S. Navy Veteran. “After many years, I reconnected with the veteran community and do my best to act as a leader and supporter for other LGBTQ+ veterans like me. I am joining this lawsuit because I want justice for my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, and I want my service to my country to be recognized as honorable.”
The currently available discharge upgrade process is burdensome, opaque, expensive, and for many veterans virtually inaccessible. The process not only takes months or years but also requires veterans to prove that an error or injustice warrants updating their discharge papers to the very entity that caused the error or injustice, despite the Government’s own acknowledgement that DADT was discriminatory.
The five Plaintiffs, on behalf of thousands more, are asking that the Government be ordered to remove the narratives and separation codes identifying their sexual orientation from their discharge forms, and upgrade their discharge statuses as needed.
If you were discharged from the military based on sexual orientation and you are interested in learning more about this lawsuit and/or becoming involved, please contact Legal Aid at Work at email@example.com or leave a voicemail at 415-593-0038 and someone will reach out to you. You can also visit www.justiceforlgbtqveterans.com for more information.