Before 2011, the military forced out thousands of LGBTQ+ troops. Now, some are suing.

The federal lawsuit seeks upgraded discharges for more than 30,000 former service members.

By Andrew Dyer, American Homefront ProjectOctober 17, 2023 9:45 am

From the American Homefront Project:

A new federal lawsuit says the Pentagon should change the discharge paperwork of the tens of thousands of service members who were forced out of the military because of their sexuality.

Until 2011, service members forced out of the military due to their sexual orientation could find themselves with so-called “bad paper” discharges, which in some cases resulted in them losing certain veterans benefits.

This year on Sept. 20, the anniversary of the 2011 repeal of the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the Pentagon announced it will begin proactively upgradingthe discharges of those separated under that policy.

But the suit, filed in the Northern District of California, insists the government do more.

Before 1994, LGBTQ+ people were prohibited from serving in the armed forces. The 1994 enactment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy didn’t repeal the ban, but said military leaders couldn’t ask service members about their sexuality and LGBTQ+ troops had to stay in the closet.

According to the Pentagon, almost 33,000 service members were forced out over their sexuality between 1980 and 2011.

Attorney Elizabeth Kristen says all veterans forced out under discriminatory policies should have their discharge papers updated. When people leave the military, they’re given a Form DD-214 which is required to apply for veterans benefits. Depending on when a person was separated under these policies, Kristen said, their form could include hurtful language.

“It says … shocking things,” Kristen said. “It says ‘homosexual admission.’ It says ‘homosexual conduct.’ It says ‘attempt to engage in homosexual conduct,’ (or) ‘attempt to engage in same sex marriage.'”

Kristen said she’s helped veterans upgrade discharges on a case-by-case basis but now believes this class-action lawsuit is the best remedy. She said most veterans don’t have the time or resources to file the necessary paperwork on their own.

Melissa Johnson was discharged from the Air Force in the 1980s when she was outed by a fellow service member. “Probably for about 20 years I never even mentioned to anybody that I was in the service, ever,” Johnson said.
Charlotte Radulovich / KPBS

Among the plaintiffs in the suit is Jules Sohn, a Marine officer who deployed to Iraq. She said she understood the rules when she received her commission during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era in 1999.

“I could have my personal life and my Marine Corps life,” Sohn said. “This (was) my idealistic self in my early 20s thinking I could do that.”

Sohn left active duty in 2005 but remained on the rolls in the Inactive Ready Reserve. But when she came out and spoke publicly about the challenge of serving under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Marines launched an investigation. In 2008, she was kicked out.

While she received an honorable discharge, Sohn said being forced out still feels like a black mark on her record.

“How do you explain that to people?” Sohn said. “It’s … kind of awkward.”

Melissa Johnson, an employment attorney in San Diego, enlisted in the Air Force when she was 17 years old — young enough that her parents had to sign a waiver. It was the early 1980s, and Johnson, a standout softball player, found herself stationed in England and traveling throughout Europe on an Air Force softball team.

That’ changed when another member of the team came under investigation for an unrelated crime and, according to Johnson, outed her teammates to investigators for leniency.

Johnson was 20 years old when she received a general discharge under honorable conditions — a status that stripped her of her G.I. Bill benefits. She said it was years before she was comfortable telling people she was a veteran.

“Probably for about 20 years, I never even mentioned to anybody that I was in the service, ever,” Johnson said. “People who are my best friends never knew I served. I think I just tucked it away. And because I tucked it away, even when I had the opportunity to petition to upgrade my discharge, I just never did — and I still haven’t.”

Johnson, who is now the president of the San Diego Bar Association, said it took years to recover from the trauma of her discharge. While she isn’t involved in the lawsuit, she said fixing veterans’ paperwork is the least the Pentagon can do.

“It would probably make me feel better about my military service,” she said. “I think it would make a lot of veterans feel more satisfied with their military service and the way it ended.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.