Clinic Provides Legal Assistance to LGBTQ Veterans

In November, Swords to Plowshares held a drop-in legal clinic to assist LGBTQ veterans with military records corrections. The clinic, located at the historic San Francisco Glide Memorial Church, provided free legal assistance to transgender veterans seeking to obtain a new military separation document, known as a “DD214,” that would reflect their legal name today.

In addition, attorneys assisted veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and similar policies in order to upgrade their discharge status and correct the narrative reason for separation on their DD214.

For many veterans, a corrected DD214 can have far reaching effects. Oftentimes veterans must present a copy of their DD214 to veteran service providers, potential employers, and whenever they need to prove their military service. For transgender veterans, if their legal name and gender is different than the name and gender that appears on their DD214, each time they share that document they are disclosing to an employer or service provider that they are transgender.

Similarly, for veterans discharged for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the narrative reason on their DD214 may be “homosexual,” “homosexual conduct,” or “homosexual admission.” Disclosing their DD214 forces them to out themselves as gay or lesbian to an employer or service provider. As one client noted about the DD214, “[It’s] your permanent record, so it will go with you the rest of your life.”

The injustices that result from an erroneous DD214 are significant. Given the lack of protections for the LGBTQ community in employment and housing throughout many cities and states, this disclosure puts veterans at risk of discrimination. Even in places that have such protections, the LGBTQ community still faces ongoing prejudice and remains at a disproportionately high risk of falling victim to hate violence. In order to prevent discrimination or worse, it is imperative that LGBTQ veterans have a DD214 that does not out them whenever they are taking advantage of the benefits they have earned from their military service.

During the clinic, pro bono attorneys from the law firm of Morrison & Foerster as well as staff attorneys from Swords to Plowshares assisted clients with completing and filing applications to the Boards for Correction of Military Records. In addition, an attorney from the Transgender Law Center was on hand to provide advice to veteran clients on the legal name change process in California.

“Morrison & Foerster was thrilled to be a part of this collaborative legal clinic. It was clear to me that by providing free legal services, we were really empowering these veterans,” remarked Dorothy Fernandez, Pro Bono Counsel for Morrison & Foerster. “Correcting their discharge papers to reflect their current gender and name, or removing “homosexual conduct” as the reason for discharge can be life-changing. It means applying for jobs without fear of discrimination, and being treated with respect and dignity anytime they’re asked to show their discharge papers. Our veterans deserve at least that. The legal process is complicated and unfamiliar for veterans who don’t have the help of attorneys, but in just a few hours we were able to make a difference.”

Although little information is available on the process of obtaining a corrected DD214 for LGBTQ veterans, Swords to Plowshares’ legal team is currently developing two self-help guides on the application process – one for transgender veterans seeking to change the name on their DD214, and one for veterans who were discharged for being gay. The self-help guides will soon be available on Swords to Plowshares’ website.

– Maureen Siedor, Swords to Plowshares Staff Attorney & Pro Bono Coordinator