A deceased veteran’s spouse is twice denied survivor benefits because he resides in a non-marriage equality state. A Korean War veteran is denied joint burial in a national cemetery for his same-sex spouse. An active-duty service member is denied a VA home loan two weeks prior to their closing date because his current place of residence does not recognize his marriage. A retired Air Force Master Sergeant’s wife passes away before she can appeal their VA home loan denial.
These are some of the emails I receive from veterans around the county. Honestly, it is heart-breaking and sickening. This is unacceptable to know that veterans are being disrespected and face unjust discrimination in their home states.
April 2014 marked the beginning of my journey with the American Military Partner Association (AMPA) as Veterans Affairs Coordinator. I was excited at the opportunity to assist fellow LGBT veterans trying to navigate the complex VA benefits web because it wasn’t that long ago that I found myself sinking into the abyss of confusing lingo and red tape. I was elated to have the chance to empower LGBT veterans and service members with the knowledge to be their own advocates.
However, through this journey, I quickly discovered how disheartening it is that the VA continues to be bound by discriminatory state marriage bans. How this could happen? Why? Well, the answer lies within the federal statute that governs veterans' benefits, Title 38 Section 103 (c).
The Supreme Court last year struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing federal agencies, including the DoD, to finally recognize same-sex military spouses as dependents. But in the administration’s opinion that decision did not impact a portion of the law which governs how the VA determines whether or not family members are eligible for benefits. Instead they say the law requires the VA to look at a couple’s state of residence, not the location in which a couple was married (a “place of residency rule”) to determine benefits. Because not all states recognize same-sex marriage, couples often travel to a different state to marry. The result? Thousands of legally married veterans and their spouses can’t receive important benefits because they live in the wrong state.
How is this fair? Haven’t our LGBT veterans suffered enough through the terror of Don't Ask Don't Tell?
On September 10th, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs narrowly defeated Rep. Dina Titus' (D-Nevada) proposed amendment to change that discriminatory language. The amendment would have granted same-sex married couples full access to the veterans’ benefits they earned regardless of where they live.
Particularly troubling are statements made by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas). “I don’t want the VA or this committee to impose its views on the State of Kansas.” What Rep. Huelskamp doesn't seem to understand is that no one is asking for something they don't deserve. Same-sex married veterans are not seeking benefits from any state, including Kansas. They are seeking the federal benefits they have rightfully earned.
It is disgraceful that Congress has failed to act and our LGBT service members and veterans residing in non-marriage equality states continue to be denied benefits from the VA. No veteran should ever be denied what they’ve earned simply because of where they live or the gender of their spouse. One thing has nothing to do with the other. LGBT veterans, as with their straight counterparts, have served and will continue to serve with pride and honor. It is a complete injustice how federal law continues to harm our modern military and veteran families. And so, the battle continues for full equality.
We certainly won’t give up. Last month, with representation by Lambda Legal and Morrison and Foerester, AMPA filed suit against the Secretary of the VA arguing that, “Having weathered the federal government’s past, longstanding discrimination against them, lesbian and gay veterans and their families find themselves once again deprived of equal rights and earned benefits by the government they served and the nation for which they sacrificed.”
Gene Silvestri is a U.S. Army disabled transgender veteran, and he received an honorable medical discharge in 2003. Since then, Gene has been active as an advocate and serves on the board of the Sacramento Valley Veterans (SVV), his local chapter of the American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER). In 2009, Gene became involved with the Sacramento County veteran service organization (VCSN) as a local transgender veteran liaison. In April 2014, Gene joined the American Military Partner Association (AMPA) as the Veterans Affairs Coordinator. He has a wide array of knowledge on VA claims processes and benefits information.