A Veteran Reflects on the 10-Year Anniversary of DADT RepealSeptember 20, 2021
September 20, 2021 marks the ten-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). The policy was enacted on February 28, 1994 and banned openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from military service. By the time it was formally repealed on September 20, 2011, DADT had resulted in the discharge of an estimated 13,000 servicemembers. Many LGB advocates at the time viewed the policy as a “win” because it provided some extremely limited protections for LGB servicemembers. For example, it barred other servicemembers from harassing or discriminating against them so long as they remained closeted, whereas previous policies, collectively accounting for the discharge of over 100,000 servicemembers, were simply outright bans. But while marketed differently, DADT was functionally similar to its precursors.
As a person who spent almost all of her military career as an out lesbian, one would assume this anniversary would be something I would celebrate. But instead, it makes me pause and reflect on how this harmful policy was repealed but its harms are ongoing. I am a 3L at Seattle University School of Law, and during externships and volunteer opportunities, I have had the opportunity to work in veterans’ law through different legal aid organizations. When DADT was repealed, the U.S. Government took no action to automatically correct discharges of individuals ejected from service under this policy. Instead, the burden lies with the servicemember to petition a military correction board to upgrade and correct the injustice in their records.
And those records are not merely a piece of paper. The military frequently discharged LGB servicemembers with discharges that were not characterized as “Honorable,” sometimes called “bad paper.” Bad paper means that the servicemember’s discharge paperwork, or DD-214, characterized their discharge as less than Honorable and/or or stated that the separation was the result of homosexual conduct/behavior and/or prohibited reenlistment. These discharges upended the careers of many LGB servicemembers and had lasting effects on their post-service lives.
Bad paper discharges frequently become barriers to post-service employment. Employers routinely request DD-214s when considering whether to hire a veteran, and a less than Honorable discharge may serve as an obstacle to gainful employment. The Supreme Court only recently decided in Bostock v. Clayton County that sexual orientation is a protected category under federal anti-discrimination law, and prejudiced employers still discriminate even though the law is on LGB workers’ side.
In addition, the characterization of a servicemember’s discharge affects the level of benefits to which they are entitled. Among the thousands of servicemembers discharged under DADT, many still lack access to Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare and other benefits because of this policy. Access to VA healthcare and benefits correlates positively to veterans’ health outcomes, meaning that if a veteran has access to VA services, then they are more likely to have better long-term health outcomes.  Access to these services and benefits truly can be a matter of life or death for many veterans.
The military’s failure to implement any automatic upgrade procedure for individuals harmed by DADT (and precursor policies) demonstrates the ongoing failure of the government to rectify the harms perpetuated by a policy that had no basis in anything except prejudice. The repeal of DADT did not decrease unit readiness, nor did the existence of LGBTQ individuals in military ranks ever present any credible threat to unit readiness or cohesion. 
In May, the Army released a new recruiting video that was part of an all-services initiative to increase diversity in recruiting. The public reception of the video was overwhelmingly negative, and the Army had to disable the comment section shortly after the video was uploaded to YouTube.  The video did not even mention the sexual orientation of the soldier who was the subject of the video, but instead disclosed that she had two mothers. Not only does the vitriol of the comment section tell us something about the current state of opinion surrounding civil rights, it also illuminates the disingenuous attempt from the Army to suggest that it is somehow a safe place for diversity. The DOD is making efforts to repair its image without doing any substantive work towards changing outcomes for individuals harmed by previous prejudicial policies.
So, as we come to this tenth anniversary of the repeal of DADT, I urge us to consider what more we have to do to be accountable for injustices. Repealing harmful policies will always be a step in the right direction, but rather than see that as an end goal, we should view it as one step towards accountability. While I am happy that ten years have passed since the end of an incredibly painful policy, I know how much work there is still left to do. Forward progress is only achievable when we are honest about where we are and where we need to go.
* Lauren Romero is a legal extern with the Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights Program at Legal Aid at Work
1. See JAMES M. CONLEY, WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY, INTERSECTIONALITY EFFECTS ON VETERANS HEALTH OUTCOMES (2017), available at https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6427&context=etd.
2.AARON BELKIN ET. AL., READINESS AND DADT REPEAL: HAS THE NEW POLICY OF OPEN SERVICE UNDERMINED THE MILITARY?, 39 ARMED FORCES & SOC’Y, 587, 588 (2013).
3. Sarah Sicard, Comment Section Removed from Army Recruiting Ad Featuring Soldier with Two Moms, ARMY TIMES, May 20, 2021 https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2021/05/20/comment-section-removed-from-army-recruiting-ad-featuring-soldier-with-two-moms/.