Biden issues clemency for gay military service members despite voting for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in 1993

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Biden issues clemency for gay military service members despite voting for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in 1993

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President Biden on Wednesday pardoned former U.S. service members who were dishonorably discharged after their conviction for violating a now-repealed military ban on consensual gay sex.

Biden’s action grants a pardon to service members who were convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s former Article 125, which criminalized sodomy. The law, which has been on the books since 1951, was rewritten in 2013 to prohibit only forcible acts.

Those covered by the pardon will be able to apply to receive proof that their conviction has been erased, petition to have their discharges from the military upgraded and move to recover lost pay and benefits.

In a statement, the president said he is “righting a historic wrong.” 

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Biden on Wednesday announced clemency for former service members convicted under a now-repealed military ban on consensual gay sex.  (Andrew Leyden/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“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,” Biden said.

“This is about dignity, decency, and ensuring the culture of our Armed Forces reflect the values that make us an exceptional nation,” he added. “We have a sacred obligation to all of our service members – including our brave LGBTQI+ 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.”

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U.S. service members march in Pride parade

Members of the U.S. military community march down the road during the Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 2023. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The move, which could restore lost benefits to potentially thousands of LGBTQI+ former service members, comes more than three decades after Biden supported “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy which barred discrimination against closeted homosexual or bisexual service members but barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from military service.

Biden voted for “don’t ask, don’t tell” as part of a larger defense bill in 1993 after voting against the amendment, which was adopted. Congress repealed the policy in 2011 with the support of then-President Obama and Biden, who was vice president.

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President Obama signs "don't ask, don't tell" repeal

Obama gestures after signing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 22, 2010. Then-Vice President Biden attended with several lawmakers.  (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden’s pardon action comes during Pride Month and just days before he is scheduled to attend a fundraiser with LGBT donors in New York on Friday. 

It was the third sweeping pardon by Biden, following the broad clemency offered to individuals convicted federally for possessing marijuana in 2022 and 2023. 

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Service members convicted of rape are not covered under Biden’s pardon. 

The president previously instructed the Department of Veterans Affairs to take action to provide benefits to service members who were other than honorably discharged because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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