A bill that would help Maine veterans who were discharged based on their sexual orientation or gender identity before the repeal of the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” laws in 2011 won the support of a legislative committee Tuesday.

The measure, sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, enables the state Bureau of Veterans Services to grant state veterans’ benefits to those who received other-than-honorable discharges because of their sexual orientation.

The bill also authorizes the bureau to help those veterans navigate the federal process of upgrading their discharge status, as allowed under the 2011 repeal – possibly making them eligible for federal benefits, including veterans health care programs.

Gideon said more than 100,000 veterans nationwide fall into the category of having received a less-than-honorable discharge based solely on their sexual orientation. It was not clear how many Maine veterans fall into this category but the state has one of the largest populations of veterans per capita in the U.S.

“As this committee well knows, “Gideon said, “the women and men who have served in our military deserve nothing but the recognition and benefits they have earned with their service. Unfortunately for those in the LGBTQ-plus community that hasn’t always been the case. With this measure we are asserting here in Maine, that that will not stand.”

Maine provides its veterans with an array of state benefits, such as free access to state parks, job training programs, emergency financial assistance and burial in state-financed veterans’ cemeteries. Some combat and disabled veterans are also entitled to motor vehicle excise tax waivers and a variety of property tax relief programs, many administered by local municipalities. Most veterans who receive an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable circumstances are eligible for state benefits, under Maine law.

The bill could have political benefits for Gideon, who won her party’s nomination last week to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in November. Collins gained broad support from the LGBTQ community as co-author and primary Republican sponsor of the bill that repealed the infamous, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” rule, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military provided they didn’t disclose their orientation and it wasn’t discovered.

In 2019, Collins was the only Republican in the U.S. Senate to sign on as a sponsor to a robust nondiscrimination bill that was the LGBTQ community’s top legislative priority that year. But earlier this month the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, withdrew its support for Collins and handed it to Gideon.

Kate Knox, a lobbyist who represents Equality Maine, a state-based advocacy group with 70,000 members, said efforts in Congress to expedite the process that allows veterans to appeal their separation status if it was triggered by their sexual orientation have been stalled for years. She noted that the Trump administration continues its efforts to force transgender service members out of the military.

“Our state has long been a leader in recognizing that our LGBTQ friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors should be treated the same as everyone else,” Knox said. “We urge you to make Maine a leader once again today by passing this bill.”

There was no testimony opposing the measure, which was introduced in March but went on the shelf when the Legislature adjourned at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Only one member of the committee, Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, seemed to question the need for the bill. Cyrway asked if there was a federal process available for service members to appeal their separation status if it was based on their orientation, why was there a need for a state law. Cyrway also questioned whether the state should be overturning dishonorable discharges by itself.

But Maine Bureau of Veteran Services Director David Richmond said the federal process could take between 15 months and three years to complete. He said the bureau’s top administrators would review the appeals based on a service member’s records and if they determined they were discharged “solely” on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they would be granted state benefits under the proposed law.

Gideon’s bill also directs the bureau to study what other states are offering to veterans who may have been discharged under less-than-honorable conditions for actions they took as a result of service-related PTSD or traumatic brain injury or were the results of the sexual abuse or harassment.

The bill’s future is uncertain, as the Legislature is currently adjourned and an effort last week by Democratic leaders to start a special session faltered when Republicans refused to answer a poll that is required before members can be called back into session. Gov. Janet Mills can also call lawmakers back into session, however, she has not made it clear when she will do so.

The Legislature adjourned abruptly in mid March after passing a $76 million supplemental budget package in advance of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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