During a West Point Pride Month ceremony in 2021, one decade after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), Cadet Frankie Rivera spoke about the enduring stigma encountered by LGBTQ+ service members. He said that, to this day, he knew of friends being told they “aren’t masculine enough to serve” and others who have been “denied promotions and positions” because of their sexuality.
A new Center for American Progress analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Board finds that the roughly 79,000 LGBT individuals currently serving in the armed forces*—and an estimated 1 million LGBT veterans—face higher levels of economic insecurity, housing instability, and mental health concerns than their non-LGBT counterparts. To help eliminate barriers for LGBTQ+ service members and veterans, the U.S. Senate must pass the Equality Act in order to codify protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in housing, employment, and public spaces.
It is estimated that more than 14,000 gay and lesbian individuals were subject to less-than-honorable discharges as a result of this policy [DADT].
History and legacy of discriminatory policies
Until 2011, the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, established in 1994, banned gay, lesbian, and bisexual (LGB) individuals from openly serving in the military. For LGBTQ+ individuals serving during this time, DADT placed an immense toll on both mental and physical health—from the need to hide their true selves and the constant fear of discovery to the inability to disclose their sexual orientation to military health care providers. It is estimated that more than 14,000 gay and lesbian individuals were subject to less-than-honorable discharges as a result of this policy. Since the repeal of DADT, service members who were discharged because of their sexual orientation have had the opportunity to appeal for an honorable discharge—but the immense difficulty in accessing the necessary records and the potential need for legal representation means that fewer than 500 veterans have made the request.
A less-than-honorable discharge as a result of DADT can effectively bar former service members from accessing necessary resources, including financial support. In an important step forward, the Biden administration in 2021 made it possible for LGBTQ+ veterans with less-than-honorable discharges to receive many benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—but the legacy of DADT has made it difficult for many to find jobs. Furthermore, the immense difficulties of serving under DADT meant that many individuals were effectively pushed out of service before they became eligible to receive benefits—many of which are only available to veterans who served two or more years.
A less-than-honorable discharge as a result of DADT can effectively bar former service members from accessing necessary resources, including financial support.
For current LGBTQ+ service members, significant cultural barriers persist, and those serving regularly experience mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of their superiors and fellow service members, who are more likely than the general population to hold anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. LGBT service members are more likely to experience sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault than their non-LGBT counterparts, and stigma is such that 59 percent of LGBT service members are not openly gay in their workplace. Speaking at the West Point pride ceremony referenced above, Maj. Chad Plenge said that the only time he had seen service members experience as much fear as coming out in the military “was in Afghanistan when [they] were being attacked.”
Transgender individuals were also banned from serving in the military from 1960 until 2016, and from 2019 to 2021—though as many as 20 percent of transgender individuals have served in the military at some time in their lives. A 2019 survey found that 93 percent of transgender service members have reported at least one instance of stigma in the military because of their gender identity, including bullying and barriers to obtaining gender-affirming services.
To this day, the military does not allow individuals who test positive for HIV to enlist—and among those who are already enlisted, testing positive creates monumental barriers to advancement, generally preventing service members from being deployed and holding officer positions. A recent court ruling has sought to end such openly discriminatory policies for service members who are diagnosed after enlisting, but these individuals still face large-scale discrimination. Such policies disproportionately target gay service members, who have faced social and cultural stigma following the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Current military guidelines also prohibit intersex individuals from serving openly in the armed forces.
Hunger and economic insecurity
LGBTQ+ service members face large-scale barriers to economic stability. Active-duty service members face discrimination in rising through the ranks, and many still feel that they are overlooked for positions because of their LGBTQ status; LGB service members are also more likely than non-LGB members to report leaving the military due to lack of promotions. In addition, the recently overturned ban of same-sex couples on military bases indicates that fewer LGBTQ+ service members live on bases; this significantly affects service members’ access to food and goods, which are sold at reduced rates on base, as well as eligibility for benefits assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which, because of eligibility standards, is easier for those living on base to access.
For National Guard and reserve members, issues of economic insecurity have been amplified during the coronavirus pandemic, as they have been forced to temporarily abandon their regular sources of income because of more frequent call-ups to facilitate operations such as COVID-19 testing and food distribution. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) in 2021 and 2022 show that:
- LGBT active-duty service members were nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to report that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past seven days, at 27 percent and 7 percent. These same percentages also were true for LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel.
- LGBT active-duty service members were more than twice as likely as non-LGBT active-duty service members to report that it was somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual household expenses in the past seven days, at 40 percent and 19 percent. This was also true of LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel, at 33 percent and 23 percent.
The legacy of DADT has meant that many veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, as well as those who were pushed out of service before becoming eligible, do not have access to benefits and financial support; these factors likely contribute to LGBT veterans experiencing high levels of economic insecurity. Data from the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) show that:
- LGBT veterans were more than four times more likely than non-LGBT veterans to report that they are finding it difficult to get by financially, at 14 percent and 3 percent.
- LGBT veterans were more likely than non-LGBT veterans to report being unable to pay some bills in the past month, at 21 percent and 9 percent.
- LGBT veterans were twice as likely as non-LGBT veterans to report using SNAP in the past 12 months, at 8 percent and 4 percent.
Living on a military base makes a significant difference in service members’ access to housing. However, same-sex couples were disallowed from living on military bases until the repeal of DADT. According to HPS data:
- LGBT active-duty service members were less likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to own their place of residence, at 36 percent and 49 percent. This was also true of LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel, at 33 percent and 71 percent.
- LGBT active-duty service members were less likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to report that they are highly confident they will be able to pay their next rent or mortgage payments, at 56 percent and 79 percent. This was also true of LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel, at 58 percent and 68 percent.
Meanwhile, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges under DADT, as well as those who were forced out of service prematurely, are often ineligible for housing vouchers afforded to other veterans. What’s more, homelessness among transgender veterans is three times higher than it is among nontransgender veterans. According to SHED data:
- LGBT veterans were more likely than non-LGBT veterans to report being dissatisfied with the cost of their housing, at 36 percent and 14 percent.
- LGBT veterans were more likely than non-LGBT veterans to report being dissatisfied with the overall quality of their housing, at 18 percent and 8 percent.
Mental and physical health
Those serving in the armed forces often encounter significant traumas and face immense social stigmas against seeking help. And the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ service members places them at even greater risk for behavioral health concerns such as smoking and drinking alcohol, as well as making them more likely to feel suicidal than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts. According to HPS data:
- LGBT active-duty service members were nine times more likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to report feeling down, depressed, or hopeless nearly every day over the past two weeks, at 55 percent and 6 percent. This was also true of LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel, at 22 percent and 6 percent.
- LGBT active-duty service members were less likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to report that they are currently covered through TRICARE or other military health care, at 53 percent and 91 percent.
- LGBT active-duty service members were less likely than non-LGBT active-duty service members to report that they were currently covered by any form of health insurance, at 63 percent and 25 percent. This was also true of LGBT National Guard and reserve personnel, and 53 percent and 22 percent.
Many veterans struggle with poor mental health and high rates of substance use. The difficulties of transferring to a civilian life and workforce means that veterans often face significant economic and food insecurity. These concerns are compounded with the struggles of being openly LGBTQ+; more than 80 percent of LGBTQ+ veterans report experiencing sexual harassment, and high rates of stigma and discrimination contribute to the fact that LGB veterans are five times as likely as non-LGB veterans to receive a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder, while transgender individuals experience significantly higher rates of mental illness. Poor treatment and stigma while serving has led to extremely high rates of mental health issues among transgender veterans.
The legacy of DADT means that many LGB veterans lost access to benefits, including health care. The difficulties of serving under these conditions have led to high rates of trauma-related disorders: LGBTQ veterans attempt suicide at a rate 15 times higher than veterans overall. Though the VA has made strides to include gender-affirming treatment options for transgender individuals, including a 2021 revisal to include gender-affirming surgeries, many still lack access to care. According to SHED data:
- LGBT veterans were seven times as likely as non-LGBT veterans to report a time during the past 12 months when they needed mental health care/counseling but went without because they couldn’t afford it, at 21 percent and 3 percent.
- LGBT veterans were less likely than non-LGBT veterans to report that they are currently covered by a TRICARE, VA, or other military or veteran’s health care plan, at 26 percent and 39 percent.
More than one decade after the repeal of DADT, LGBTQ+ service members continue to encounter significant harassment and discrimination that often bars them from career advancement, affects their housing and food security, and compromises their mental and physical health. For LGBTQ+ veterans, the legacy of DADT can limit access to necessary housing and health care assistance, leaving them unable to pay bills and without access to treatment for mental health and substance use problems. The Senate must pass the Equality Act to combat the widespread discrimination that LGBTQ+ service members and veterans face.
* A 2018 report from the RAND Corp. finds that 6.1 percent of current military personnel identify as LGBT, and a report from the Council on Foreign Relations establishes that there are roughly 1.3 million individuals serving in the U.S. armed forces.
This article utilizes two sources of data:
- The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey Weeks 34-40, July 2021 – March 2022: The survey asks questions regarding child care, employment, food security, health, and household spending. Collectively, the data include 510 LGBT veterans and 4,607 non-LGBT individuals and were weighted to account for nonresponse, adults per household, and coverage. All statistics comparing LGBT respondents with non-LGBT respondents are significant at the 0.05 level.
- The Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking 2019: This survey includes modules on a range of topics of current relevance to financial well-being. Collectively, the data include 50 LGBT veterans and 1,082 non-LGBT veterans, and responses were weighted to account for U.S. adult population characteristics. All statistics comparing LGBT respondents with non-LGBT respondents are significant at the 0.05 level.