Biden To Pardon Veterans Convicted for Same-Sex Relationships

By: Alex Trent | Published: Jun 26, 2024

President Joe Biden is set to use his presidential powers of clemency to pardon former members of the US armed forces who were convicted under the previous military ban on gay sex.

The move would pardon an estimated 2,000 people who were convicted or discharged under military sodomy and same-sex relationship laws and guidelines between 1951 and 2013.

Historic Wrong

On Wednesday, Biden gave a statement expressing how he was using his powers as president to try to right the wrongs of the past.

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A soldier stands tall next to a bag.

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“Today, I am righting an historic wrong by using my clemency authority to pardon many former service members who were convicted simply for being themselves,” said Biden.

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Honoring Sacrifice

Biden continued in his statement to pay tribute to LGBT service members who made great sacrifices on the nation’s frontlines to protect it.

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“Our nation’s service members stand on the frontlines of freedom, and risk their lives in order to defend our country. 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.

Policy History

In 1951, the Uniform Code of Military Justice began explicitly criminalizing sodomy in the military, which could see service members left with criminal records and dishonorable discharges.

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“There are thousands that have been incarcerated for their sexuality,” said law professor Rachel VanLandingham last year on the topic of action for LGBT service members. “If [The US Military] cared enough, they could go through the records.”

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

In the 1990s under the Bill Clinton administration, this policy on banning consensual gay sex in the military changed. Under a new policy, known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), gay American citizens were allowed to serve in the military as long as they remained private about their sexuality. However, they could still be dismissed if they were outed without their consent.

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US President Bill Clinton in a Black and White photograph.

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This remained US policy until it was overturned in 2010 under President Barack Obama and then-vice-president Joe Biden.

Officially Decriminalized

Same-sex relationships in the military would not be fully decriminalized in the US until the National Defense Authorization Act was passed through Congress and signed by then-President Obama in 2014.

A close-up image capturing former President Barack Obama on the left, partially in view and smiling, with President Joe Biden on the right

Source: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons

However, while same-sex relationships now are accepted, the lingering fallout of past policies necessitated the current move by the Biden administration.

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How Does it Work?

The announcement by Biden does not do anything for an affected veteran on its own. According to administration officials, a veteran would need to apply and complete a process to get their record cleared under Biden’s clemency powers.

Three soldiers in camouflage uniforms and helmets are seated in a military truck, viewed from behind. They are wearing body armor and carrying backpacks, ready for deployment

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Service members would need to be accepted for a certificate of pardon which they could then use to become eligible for veterans benefits and change their discharge status. Reportedly, the pardon will not apply to someone convicted of rape.

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Real Consequences

While some may think the pardon is merely a symbolic gesture for past wrongs, the pardon by Biden will have real consequences for some.

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Those with the dishonorable discharge status are ineligible for veteran services guaranteed under the government like healthcare, education, insurance, loans, and employment training.

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Questions of Timing

Some have questioned why President Biden is making such a move now, given that he has had over three years as president to start such a process. In response to questions on this topic, administration officials have not had a clear answer.

A closeup shot at Joe Biden’s hands as he holds a pen.

Source: The White House/Wikimedia

“The president is committed to righting historic wrongs when he has the opportunity to do so,” one senior administration official told reporters.

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Reaction Online

Biden posted his announcement of the LGBT pardons to his official POTUS account on X, which many expressed support for.

A person holding both hands together. Each hand has one of the letters for LGBTQIA+ on.

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“This is long overdue, and I am thrilled for LGBTQ veterans who were forced out of the military for simply existing. These brave Americans were willing to give their life for our country, it’s time they receive the benefits and support they earned. Thank you, President Biden,” wrote X user Travis Akers.

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Complicated Past

X user Mayson Burch pointed out in a comment that Biden had been part of the problem for LGBT service members in the past. “You voted FOR the law under which they were convicted,” Burch wrote

President Joe Biden smiling while speaking at a podium with the Presidential seal, flanked by American flags

Source: POTUS/X

During the Clinton administration in the 1990s, then US Senator Joe Biden voted for “don’t ask, don’t tell” as part of a larger defense bill that eventually became law.

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Third Pardon

This latest pardon from Biden is the third such sweeping pardon that he has issued during his presidency.

President Joe Biden speaking at a podium in the White House, gesturing with his hand, with U.S. flags

Source: POTUS/X

In 2022 and 2023, Biden offered wide-ranging pardons for people who had been convicted of possessing marijuana under federal law.

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