President Biden pardons veterans convicted under regulation used to keep LGBTQ members from serving

President Biden pardons veterans convicted under regulation used to keep LGBTQ members from serving
President Joe Biden speaks at an event in the East Room at the White House, June 18, 2024, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he has pardoned U.S. veterans who were convicted by the military under a regulation that allowed people to be kicked out for being gay.

The White House said in a statement announcing the pardons that the decision will impact thousands of veterans, though officials declined to give a specific number.

“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,” Biden said in the statement, calling it a “full, complete and unconditional pardon.”

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

Biden’s clemency of LGBTQ veterans is a symbolic effort to correct for an era when the military prosecuted people under Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which prohibited gay sex. It was in place from 1951 to 2013.

An estimated 100,000 service members since World War II have been kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation, officials say, including more than 13,000 under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy between 1994 and 2011.

The practical impact of offering clemency to people who were convicted is that it could allow veterans to take advantage of benefits they’ve been denied, such as military pensions, home loans and college tuition benefits.

But veterans will not automatically have their convictions wiped – they have to apply and go through a military approval process.

“Once they apply for that certificate of pardon, they can then use that certificate of pardon to apply to have their discharge characterization changed with the relevant military branch. And that for many of them should unlock, down the road, access to critical benefits,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.

Asked if the administration is doing outreach to contact veterans who might’ve been discharged from the military decades ago and are unaware they can have their charges wiped, an official was sparse on details but said the White House and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working on plans.

Wednesday’s announcement comes on the heels of multiple other efforts since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed to address the injustices endured by LGBTQ service members.

Since 2012, for example, service members who were kicked out have been able to apply to a military board for a chance to have official records upgraded to remove references to sexual orientation and qualify for more benefits.

But only one-in-four eligible veterans has done so, according to the Pentagon.

And in 2023, the Biden administration announced that the military would for the first time begin proactively reviewing discharge records to identify and help those who were kicked out and have not come forward. But that, too, required veterans to apply for their records to be altered.

Veteran advocates have criticized application-based relief as too obstructive, putting the onus on veterans to fix the military’s wrongs and limiting the reach of the policy.

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer and Sarah Herndon contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.