Veterans discharged for LGBTQ identity could access benefits more easily with expected law
President Joe Biden signed an order Monday reversing a Trump-era Pentagon policy that largely barred transgender individuals from serving in the military. (Jan. 25) AP Domestic
Gina Pollut served in the Marines for eight months before she was discharged solely for being a lesbian.
For a while, she didn't consider herself a veteran because she served so little time. Nearly 30 years later, Pollut connected with other Marine veterans who reminded her that the oath she took never expires, and told her about changing her discharge designation. In February 2018 she started the process to upgrade from "general under honorable" to "honorable."
It's been a long, complicated journey for Pollut to change her designation, even though she became well connected with New Jersey veterans' groups.
"I had the ear of some folks that if anyone could have helped me I had the resource there, and I still had that much difficulty," Pollut said. "My concern is [if] my fellow sisters and brothers would have the same access that I actually had. I don't know."
A New Jersey bill Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign into law in April is "an extraordinary step in the right direction," Pollut said. The law would make it easier for other LGBTQ veterans discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity to update their discharge designation, which then unlocks access to state benefits.
The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs would be required to help former service members through the process to update the members' records to show they were discharged honorably if the bill becomes law. The change would remain confidential.
The department's free assistance would be available to veterans let go from service with a general or less-than-honorable discharge exclusively because of their LGBTQ identity.
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Veterans who get their discharge designation changed would be eligible for the same benefits as honorably discharged service members. These include unique home loans, state income tax exemptions and educational funding opportunities, among others.
An estimated 100,000 service members were discharged for their LGBTQ identities under less-than-honorable conditions, according to the bill's text. Pollut knows of only one other person, but thinks many may "be in the closet" as veterans who were discharged for being LGBTQ.
"This is the only battle mission I feel like I'm alone in," Pollut said. "I have plenty that are supportive, but they didn't live it."
When higher-ups found out about Pollut's identity, she "flipped out" because, at the time, being gay "could send you to the brig," she said. Luckily, she said, she had high proficiency marks and didn't engage in other misconduct. She said she didn't have romantic relationships with women on base, and that she shared her identity only privately with a psychiatrist.
In 1993, four years after Pollut left the Marines, then-President Bill Clinton signed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law. That allowed LGBTQ people to enlist, but they had to keep their identities quiet.
Former President Barack Obama repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2011. Eight years after that repeal, former President Donald Trump implemented a policy that specifically blocked transgender people from joining the military.
Service members had to meet required physical standards of their sex assigned at birth, but people with a history of gender dysphoria or gender-affirming surgeries were disqualified, according to a U.S. Army fact sheet. President Joe Biden lifted the ban shortly after taking office in early 2021. The New Jersey bill also opens up benefits access to transgender veterans discharged under Trump's law.
Reinstating LGBTQ veterans' benefits helps "undo some of the damage" caused by
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," said state Sen. Vin Gopal, one of the bill's primary sponsors and chair of the Senate's Military and Veterans' Affairs committee.
"Nobody should be forced to forfeit their hard-earned benefits because of who they are," said Gopal, D-Monmouth. "The damage is still hurting veterans and families to this day, so with the [recent] 26th anniversary of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' it's long time we set this right for our LGBTQ veterans."
The bill passed almost unanimously in both the Assembly and the Senate. Only Assemblyman Gerard Scharfenberger, R-Middletown, voted against it.
LGBTQ veterans could financially benefit if they upgrade their discharge designation. Beyond that, going through the upgrade process gave Pollut an opportunity to reconnect. She joined several social groups and organizations that serve local veterans. She said she finally received validation for honorably serving her country over 30 years ago.
"It's not about recognition; it's about healing," Pollut said. "It's being validated that I wasn't just a dirty gay person that couldn't serve. One has nothing to do with the other."
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Gov. Phil Murphy would sign the bill this week. He is expected to sign it later in April, according to an official source.