New state law restores benefits to many LGBTQ veterans discharged less than honorably

Dec 11, 2019

Veterans in New York State who received less-than-honorable discharges that can be linked to their sexual orientation may have state veteran benefits restored, under legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Restoration of Honor Act, signed in November by Governor Andrew Cuomo, restores benefits to those given less-than-honorable discharges not only due to sexual orientation but also due to military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

James Estep, a retired gay Navy veteran, sits in his Buffalo apartment.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

"Countless service members were discharged from the military simply because of who they are. Adding insult to injury, they were then denied the services and benefits they earned as members of our armed forces who fought to protect our country and defend our ideals," said the governor in a prepared written statement issued last month. "With this measure we are righting that wrong and sending a message to LGBTQ veterans that we have their backs, just as they had ours."

Among those who went without benefits for decades is Jim Estep , a Lieutenant and attack pilot who served in the U.S. Navy from 1958 to 1964, including action in Vietnam.

"At that time, it was still a policy of don't ask, don't tell," he said in an interview with WBFO. "It wasn't official but it was the way we behaved. No one asked you what your sexual orientation was."

But Estep told WBFO he suspected many of his peers, enlisted and officers alike, quietly figured out he was gay. No complaints had ever been lodged against him. But while his ship was in Yokohama awaiting repairs, he was questioned for an investigation of a colleague living in the U.S. and, upon the discovery of a "carelessly placed" letter on that colleague's bed, found himself under scrutiny. 

He was warned he faced court martial, despite the lack of complaints and witnesses. Estep told WBFO he was presented with a dictated confession to sign, by which he would have admitted having inappropriate contacts with numerous unnamed accomplices. He refused to go along with it and chose instead to leave the Navy.

"My frame of mind at the time was I did not want to serve in an organization that would do this to me," Estep recalled. "I was pissed off enough to withdraw my services. In light of where I am now, that was a serious mistake."

Estep has tried several times since then to appeal for a change in status to honorable discharge. He has been unsuccessful and told WBFO he has given up trying. He revealed he did have a relationship with a fellow military member,recognizing it as a violation of the rules, but added that many of all sewxual orientations also broke the rules. He even pointed to General Dwight Eisenhower, whose secretary and driver later admitted they were involved in a romantic affair.

Estep says he may have lost some benefits but it didn't hinder his ability to establish a career outside of military service. He's now retired and living in Buffalo and spends spare time painting. His apartment is filled with numerous works, many featuring the muscular male form. 

While he no longer pursues a change in his own status, he feels a sense of camaraderie for other homosexual veterans who may seek a retroactive honorable discharge.

"I have a very strong feeling about the benefits that should accrue to people who do serve their country legitimately and honorably," he said. "I think they're just beginning now to get a fair shake and Governor Cuomo's bill, modeled maybe on the one in New Jersey, is one way to assure that."

Dr. Walter Koch, a senior caseworker within the office of Congressman Brian Higgins, says each branch of the service has its own panel to oversee requests. If it's a LGBTQ veteran who was not charged with any wrongdoing unrelated to sexual orientation, Dr. Koch suggests the case will be heard but warns it's time consuming and, if it's the case of an older veteran, potentially difficult.

"They'll have to find all the evidence. They'll need eyewitness accounts," Koch said. "All those things are easier said than done, finding all that evidence. Trying to make it right is not as easy as it seems, even though there's a process in place."

Estep says Governor Cuomo can do whatever he wants, as can other states, but that won't necessarily change federal policy. But individuals states, as New York and New Jersey have done, can pass legislation which Estep says helps get around federal policy.

The Restoration of Honor Act is just one step New York State has taken on behalf of LGBTQ veterans. In October, it became the first state in the nation to require all veterans service staff be certified in LGBTQ and HIV-positive competency training.