Legislation seeks to restore state benefits to LGBTQ veterans dishonorably discharged
By Brittany Comak
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) – A senate committee heard from LGBTQ veterans and supporters Wednesday about the emotional and financial toll of not only being kicked out of the service for how they identify, but then also being denied benefits at home.
Rhode Island veterans dishonorably discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity can't get state or federal benefits.
"They are giving themselves to this country and we are treating them like second class citizens," said LGBTQ ally, Samson Hampton.
But a new bill making its way through the state house may soon restore state benefits.
The legislation seeks to give LGBTQ veterans in Rhode Island a pathway to have their discharge status changed – if the discharge was based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.
Sponsors of the bill say it is primarily aimed at veterans who were dishonorably discharged under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, but would help all veterans who have faced this type of discrimination.
According to officials, it's estimated that about 100,000 veterans between World War II and the end of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, were discharged from the military simply for being LGBTQ.
"Back when I served, it was before 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and homosexuality was still considered a mental illness," said Vietnam War Veteran Robert O'Neil. "So if they found out you were gay it was automatically an undesirable discharge."
Rhode Island legislators are hoping to right these past wrongs with this new bill, to change LGBTQ veterans' status from anything other than honorable, and allow them access to state benefits they've been denied.
"I think this is important legislation that we can help support our veterans who were unfairly discriminated against," said bill sponsor Senator Dawn Euer.
Supporters say the number of Rhode Island veterans this could affect is unclear, as most who served were forced to keep their orientation or gender identity secret.
Vietnam veteran Robert O'neil is one of those people who was able to hide who he was during his service, and received an honorable discharge.
"It could have been me, yes," said O'Neil. "I don't think it's right that people that want to serve their country should be penalized because they were gay. Or bisexual, or transgender, or whatever."
The legislation passed in the house last month.
The Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans Affairs plans to formally vote on the bill in the next few weeks.
The Rhode Island Office of Veterans Affairs supports the legislation, saying in a statement in part: “Too many LBGTQ veterans were and still are precluded from accessing critical benefits earned through their service simply due to their sexual orientation. This legislation gives a chance to right the wrongs of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and honor our LGBTQ veterans.“
©WLNE-TV / ABC6 2019