Gay Veterans Denied Benefits Get Some Relief in New York

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a Jan. 29, 2019, news conference in the Red Room at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Just after Veterans Day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law Tuesday a bill that makes state benefits possible for gay servicemembers whose sexual orientation led to a dishonorable discharge.

The Restoration of Honor Act has been in the works for years, said state Senator Brad Hoylman, who fought alongside Assemblywoman Didi Barrett to get it passed earlier this year.

“The men and women who have stepped up and risked their lives to protect and serve our country embody what it means to be a hero,” Barrett said in a statement. “Yet, for far too long, many of our veterans in the LGBTQ community, those who experienced military sexual trauma and vets struggling with mental and behavioral health disorders have been denied the support and resources they’ve earned when they separate from service.”

Four years ago, Hoylman’s office reported that military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder were among the circumstances that led to veterans receiving less than honorable discharge, costing them at least 53 state benefits.

One of the key findings of the report was that an estimated 114,000 servicemembers have received a dishonorable discharge because of their gender identity or sexual orientation since World War II. The report also faulted the U.S. government’s delay restoring benefits to servicemembers after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that led to the dismissal of more than 14,000 gay military members.

The first such discharge occurred in 1778 under orders from then-General George Washington, the report found.

“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,” Lynn Faria, executive vice president at SAGE, which provides advocacy and services to older gay populations. “Older LGBT veterans especially bore the burden of hiding and have suffered because of their lack of access to critical benefits

On Veterans’ Day, Cuomo signed into law a package of 14 bills advancing the rights of veterans, including allowing them to get high school diplomas, mandating a report on homeless vets in the state, expanding their paid leave for health reasons, and extending a real property tax exemption to active members who need to modify their homes for a service-related disability.

“Countless service members were discharged from the military simply because of who they are,” Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday about the Restoration of Honor Act.

“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. With this measure we are righting that wrong and sending a message to LGBTQ veterans that we have their backs, just as they had ours.”

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