Since World War II, approximately 114,000 servicemembers have been discharged from all four branches of the United States military for homosexual conduct. From 1994 to 2011, “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official policy of the military, forcing many service members to actively work to conceal their sexuality or face a less-than-honorable discharge. After the repeal of DADT, various bills were introduced in Congress – perhaps the best known put forth by Reps. Charlie Rangel and Mark Pocan in 2013 – to automatically upgrade any other-than-honorable discharges given for homosexual conduct, but none ever gained traction. Still, it is possible for you to upgrade your discharge if you are able to show the right documentation.
Very few discharged veterans have chosen to apply for an upgrade – only about 8 percent of those affected – but it is widely believed that many simply are unaware of the option. Some do choose to retain the designation as a reminder of history, but others jump at the chance to correct their records. The rationale is not only to right a historical wrong but also to improve their quality of life after service.
In some states, a dishonorable discharge is seen as equivalent to a felony, meaning that those dishonorably discharged lose rights like the ability to apply for certain jobs, and even to vote. A federal law, the Brady Act, prohibits you from owning firearms if you have a dishonorable discharge on your record. There are also benefits granted to honorably discharged service members that are not available to those with a general, other-than-honorable, or dishonorable discharge. Those with general discharges, for example, are not eligible to apply for GI Bill benefits, and those with other-than-honorable discharges may not be eligible for veterans’ retirement benefits.
In order to upgrade your discharge or have your separation designation code changed, you must provide evidence that your discharge was “inequitable” or “improper.” Those are specific legal standards (“inequitable” means unfair or not in keeping with the values of the service, while “improper” means mistaken or erroneous), so meeting that burden with evidence can be difficult. If for example, you had any incidents of misconduct or disciplinary issues while enlisted, you may be denied an upgrade simply because your record was not clean. However, if you had a clean record aside from the instance or instances of homosexual conduct, the odds may be in your favor.