▶ Watch Video: LGBTQ+ veterans still fighting for honorable discharges

New figures shared exclusively with CBS News are offering a detailed look at the scope of decades of discrimination by the U.S. military against gay and lesbian service members, revealing that more than 29,000 individuals kicked out because of their sexuality were denied honorable discharges.

There have long been estimates suggesting about 14,000 service members were separated from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that banned gay men and women from serving openly from 1994 to 2011, but the military has never before shared a detailed breakdown of how many individuals were denied honorable discharges during and before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when gays and lesbians were prohibited from serving at all. 

The new data, which the nonprofit legal services organization Legal Aid At Work obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with CBS News, covers the three decades from 1980 until the federal courts lifted the ban against gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and airmen in 2010.

According to the data, 35,801 individuals “received a discharge or separation because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct, sexual perversion, or any other related reason from the period October 1, 1980 to September 20, 2011.” Of those cases, 81% were denied honorable discharges in the form of a general discharge, other than honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge or dishonorable discharge. 

Underscoring the long-standing confusion over the number of service members affected, the military has within weeks offered contradictory figures. When CBS News reached out to the Defense Department about the new figures, officials there produced different numbers from its Office of Legal Policy indicating most service members separated on the basis of homosexual conduct from 1970 to 2011 were discharged under honorable conditions. 

After requesting more detail, the department shared a partial breakdown: 23,392 honorable discharges, 11,023 general discharges under honorable conditions and 5,374 uncharacterized discharges. It did not provide statistics on the most punitive forms of discharges. 

While it’s unclear why the figures from the Defense Department’s Office of Legal Policy differ from those provided by its own Freedom of Information Division, it is not surprising, experts told CBS News. Scholars, activists, and lawmakers have wrestled for years with how to count and identify these individuals in the absence of clarity and transparency from the military itself.

“The numbers confirm the magnitude of the discrimination and injustice suffered by so many service members who joined our Armed Forces with the hope of honorably serving our country,” said Elizabeth Kristen, the director of Legal Aid At Work’s Gender Equity & LGBTQ Rights Program. “It also quantifies the substantial number of service members who carry the harmful stigma of a discharge status that is less than an honorable discharge, impacting their right to receive the benefits that this country has seen fit to provide to all other veterans.”

Number of individuals who received an other than honorable discharge from the U.S. military because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct or other related reasons, from Oct. 1,1980 to Sept. 20, 2011.

Department of Defense

The figures come after a six-month CBS News investigation documented the emotional and financial toll experienced by LGBTQ veterans who have been denied access to full benefits including health care, VA loan programs, tuition assistance and even some jobs as a result of their discharge status. 

The investigation also found the U.S. military has made no affirmative effort to identify and revisit cases where service members were convicted of crimes and saddled with felony records for being involved in same-sex relationships. While some military laws directly criminalized homosexual activity, other statutes were used as cover charges to drum gay men and women out of the service, meaning these numbers may only reveal a fraction of the true toll. 

Air Force veteran once imprisoned for being gay still endures the stigma of a felony record


What remains uncontested is how few of these veterans’ have succeeded in attaining an honorable discharge status. According to the most recent data available, just 1,375 have been granted relief in the form of a discharge upgrade or correction to their record. 

In a statement to CBS News earlier this year the Defense Department said it “has conducted several outreach campaigns to inform all Veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records.” 

David Stacy, the government affairs vice president for LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, called the numbers “sobering” and urged the Pentagon to reexamine their discharge upgrade process.

“I think the Pentagon should continue to look at whether the standard for the upgrades is adequate based on the available records and the known level of discrimination and bias that was imposed by the military over decades,” Stacy said. “With this order of magnitude it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people out there that justifiably should have an upgraded discharge and figuring out how to solve that problem is something that the Pentagon should spend some time doing.”