Biden pardons LGBTQ service members convicted under defunct military policy

President Joe Biden on Wednesday issued a blanket pardon to LGBTQ
service members convicted and discharged from the military under a gay
sex ban that has been off the books for more than a decade.

The
move potentially erases the criminal convictions of thousands of service
members who faced court-martial for violating Article 125 of the
Uniform Code of Military Justice, an anti-sodomy law in effect from 1951
until 2013. 

The provision was clarified last decade to remove
consensual sexual acts from the ban — but the status of people convicted
and removed from the military under the policy remained unchanged.

In a statement accompanying the pardon, Biden said that his action rights “a historic wrong” in the country’s military tradition.

“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,” the president wrote. “Some of these patriotic
Americans were subject to court-martial, and have carried the burden of
this great injustice for decades.”

According to the Wednesday
proclamation, pardons will apply to any former service member convicted
under the defunct military code for “unaggravated offenses based on
consensual, private conduct” with people over 18 years old. People
pardoned under the declaration — which comes at the end of Pride Month —
can now apply to have their convictions expunged and, if approved by
the Defense Department, can have their military discharges upgraded.

The
White House said it “strongly encourages” veterans who receive a pardon
certificate from the Pentagon to apply for an upgrade to their
discharge.

The new slate of pardons also coincides with the nine-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, which federally legalized same-sex marriage.

“As
Commander in Chief, I am committed to maintaining the finest fighting
force in the world,” Biden wrote. “That means making sure that every
member of our military is safe and respected — so they can focus on
their mission.”

The president acknowledged that, while he saw the
pardons as a step towards addressing historical discrimination against
LGBTQ people in the military and elsewhere in American society, there
was still more work to be done.

“[T]here are other LGBTQI+
individuals who served our nation and were convicted of other crimes
because of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” Wednesday’s
proclamation reads. “It is the policy of my administration to
expeditiously consider and to make final pardon determinations with
respect to such individuals.”

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers — particularly Democrats — celebrated the pardons.

“President
Biden has taken another step forward in advancing the rights of LGBTQ+
Americans by offering a long-overdue pardon for those wrongfully
convicted under a now-repealed military law for their identity,” said
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin in a statement Wednesday.

The
Illinois Democrat added that allowing the convictions of service members
based on their sexual orientation and other discriminatory policies
such as the military’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision
were a “shameful mark” on American history.

“Now, these service members will receive the recognition and benefits they rightfully deserve,” Durbin said.

The
U.S. military in 2011 walked back its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a
1993 provision which prohibited discrimination based on sexual
orientation but also prevented service members from being openly gay.

“The
pardons by President Biden are another step in
America’s challenging but inexorable march towards greater equality,”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement. “These actions
correct a historic wrong for LGBTQ+ Americans
who served bravely in our armed forces to keep our country safe. These
valiant servicemembers defended our freedom and
were unjustly discharged – and in some cases
even court-martialed – simply for being who they are.”

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who took to social media Wednesday to celebrate the anniversary of the Obergefell
decision as a “triumphant victory for the rights and dignity of LBGTQ+
Americans,” also was not immediately available to comment on the White
House pardons.

Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that has
represented LGBTQ people facing discrimination in the military, also
applauded the pardons.

“We are thrilled that the Biden
administration has taken this long-overdue corrective action to right a
historic wrong and to restore to LGBTQ+ veterans the honor for their
service that should never have been denied,” said CEO Kevin Jennings.

The White House in 2023 issued a similar blanket pardon
to nearly a dozen people serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses
involving marijuana, an expansion of another categorical pardon Biden
rolled out the year prior.