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Through budget amendment, discharged gay and lesbian veterans could receive Mass. state benefits

Matt Radick
Creative Commons /

A budget amendment passed recently by the Massachusetts Senate could restore benefits to veterans discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."

The policy, which barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual persons from military service, was repealed by Congress as of 2011. Last year, the federal government gave thousands of lesbian, gay and bisexual veterans who were discharged from the military under "don't ask, don't tell" access to full veterans benefits.

Now in Massachusetts, a budget amendment could restore state benefits — like tuition waivers and property tax exemptions — to veterans discharged under the policy,

The amendment, sponsored by state Sen. John Velis of Westfield, would create a board to review appeals from veterans who say they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and who received an “other than honorable discharge.”

The board's recommendation would then go to the state's secretary of veteran services.

"There could be some tough cases," Velis said. “In some discharges it could be a couple of things. It could be something under 'don't ask, don't tell,' but it could also be a drunk driving charge.”

VA officials estimate more than 14,000 service members nationwide were forced out of the military in the 18 years the policy was in place, due to their sexual preference, identification or HIV status.

Because “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed a more than decade ago, Velis said he's unsure how many people would come forward to take advantage of a revised Massachusetts law.

“A population that might have been in Massachusetts has since moved. People that weren't from Massachusetts may now be here," Velis said. "So it's going to take some time to get an accurate picture of the full numbers."

Velis noted that last year’s federal move was an executive action and didn't change any laws.

“It wasn't the U.S. Congress and the president signing it," Velis said. "And why that could be a little bit problematic is because the VA is an agency. If there were a new president elected, whoever that person may be, that person would have the unilateral discretion if they didn't agree with this policy to say, ‘No, we're going to go back to how it was and you're not eligible for federal benefits.'"

That's why Velis said he wants the policy around Massachusetts benefits enshrined in law.

The Massachusetts Senate and House have yet to agree on final budget language, but Velis anticipates his amendment will be included.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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