Biden pardoning LGBTQ+ service members convicted for sexual orientation

President Biden is pardoning LGBTQ+ service members who were convicted of a crime under military law based on their sexual orientation, he is expected to announce Wednesday. The Biden administration estimates the move will affect “thousands” of service members convicted over the six decades that military law formally banned consensual homosexual conduct, senior administration officials told reporters on a call Tuesday. 

“Today, I am righting an historic wrong by using my clemency authority to pardon many former service members who were convicted simply for being themselves,” the president said in a statement. “Our nation’s service members stand on the frontlines of freedom, and risk their lives in order to defend our country. Despite their courage and great sacrifice, thousands of LGBTQI+ service members were forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of these patriotic Americans were subject to court-martial, and have carried the burden of this great injustice for decades.”

Beginning in 1951, the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 125 explicitly criminalized consensual “sodomy,” until Congress and President Barack Obama decriminalized same-sex relationships through the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014. But the effects of those convictions have lingered for those veterans, leaving criminal records and the stain of a dishonorable discharge, as CBS News has recently reported

The military code is separate from, but related to, the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy adopted during the Clinton years and repealed during the Obama years. That policy banned openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the military. 

The announcement doesn’t automatically change these veterans’ records; they will still have to apply for and complete a process, senior administration officials said. Eligible service members and veterans must apply for a certificate of pardon, which they can use to get their discharge status changed. That change of status will unlock veterans benefits that many of them have been denied. Officials aren’t sure how long the process could take, or whether those who qualify will be eligible for back pay. 

It’s unclear why the president is only now pardoning LGBTQ+ service members, since he’s had the opportunity to do so for nearly three and a half years. Senior administration officials struggled to respond to that discrepancy. 

“The president is committed to righting historic wrongs when he has the opportunity to do so,” one senior administration official told reporters. 

The president’s pardon comes on one of the final days of Pride Month

We have a sacred obligation to all of our service members — including our brave LGBTQ+ service members: to properly prepare and equip them when they are sent into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home,” the president said in his statement. “Today, we are making progress in that pursuit.”

LGBTQ service members and their families have had to fight for benefits from their discharges. A federal judge in San Francisco last week refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming the military violated the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of LGBTQ veterans by failing to grant them honorable discharges when they were barred from serving over their sexual orientation. 

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