by ALEXANDRA ZUCCARO
When Denny Meyer was in college, anti-Vietnam War protests raged. Students railed against United States foreign policy, marched in the streets and burned their draft cards — and the American flag.
As a first-generation American, this didn’t sit well with Meyer, whose parents had emigrated from Germany in 1938. He was proud of his country and believed that protesters were taking their freedoms for granted.
Meyer decided he wanted to enlist in the military.
Although recruiters welcomed volunteers with open arms during the Vietnam War, Meyer, as a gay man, anticipated facing some hostility. In fact, many draft-age conscripts were able to get out of serving by claiming to be homosexual. But for members of the gay community who wanted to serve, this meant concealing their sexual identity.
For Meyer, this was just the beginning. He had 10 years of hell ahead of him.
“People like me who were gay lied and said we were straight so we could serve,” said Meyer, 70. “We called it ‘serving in silence.’”
Since World War II, an estimated 114,000 service members have been dishonorably discharged since World War II because of their sexual orientation, according to state Sen. Brad Hoylman’s office. And as a result, many LGBT veterans have not received federal or state veterans’ benefits otherwise due them.
“You have many gay people with still unrepaired dishonorable discharges,” Meyer, retired now from international marketing sales, said. “We’re not asking for special consideration, we’re asking for what we deserve.”
In an attempt to remedy those inequities, New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman introduced “The Restoration of Honor Act,” which would give LGBT veterans access to 53 New York State programs, benefits and tax breaks that are currently contingent on a service member’s discharge status. In 2014, a similar bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to give LGBT veterans access to federal benefits.
Getting the bill passed has taken longer than anticipated. “The bill is lagging in Congress, which is why we wanted to work on a state level,” Hoylman said. “We are just trying to get our veterans all the support they need.”
Hoylman’s bill, however, is being blocked for consideration by state Republicans in the State Senate.
“This is a bill that I did not think would have fierce opposition,” said Hoylman, who said he has the support from a number of colleagues. “We need to address this stain on our history, where veterans were discharged simply based on who they are.”
Many LGBT veteran advocates agree that passing this bill is not only important, but also just the beginning for LGBT veterans. Speaking during a City Council hearing in support of Hoylman’s bill and federal legislation, the NYC Veterans Alliance president, Kristen Rouse, while supportive of the efforts, said much more needs to be done to restore justice to veterans ostracized or even banished from the military because of their sexual orientation.
“Automatic upgrades are important, but they won’t reverse the damage done,” Rouse, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, said at the December 2015 hearing. “There are still too many cases that won’t be upgraded because of aggravating charges, like when a service member fought back, went AWOL, or otherwise behaved in ways that responded to enforced discrimination, coercion, sexual violence, or other unreasonable and unjust conditions.”
In her testimony, Rouse additionally recalled her own experience as a LQBT service member under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and described some of the challenges that she faced.
“I internalized harassment and the near-daily slanders of gay and lesbian people that were part of my work environment as simply the price I had to pay for serving my country,” she said.
Testimony such as Rouse’s convinced Hoylman of the importance of LGBT veteran legislation reforms. He plans to continue pushing for passage of his bill in January, when the session reconvenes. He said he’s hopeful a change in leadership following the November election will help pass the legislation.
“It did crystallize in my mind that we have been overlooking this specific subset of veterans,” said Hoylman. “I hope that new leadership will change this.”
Many veterans still remain skeptical, however. Meyer would like to see more reforms for LGBT veterans, but doesn’t see anything happening unless there is a change in government.
“Unless you have a million dollars and a big checkbook, you are going to get nowhere,” he said.
This is unfortunate, Meyer added, because many LGBT service members could use the state benefits outlined in the state bill. For example, many veterans would have access to health benefits and to educational scholarships.
The bill would also give LGBT veterans a chance to reclaim their honor that was stripped away from them when they were dishonorably discharged. Many forget about the emotional damage these actions have caused as well.
“What we’ve done shows pure patriotism and pure courage,” said Meyer. “It’s been an insult to [the community’s] character and self-esteem ever since.”