Certification SPOTLIGHT

A Hero’s Welcome

Veterans Discharged for Being LGBTQ+ Can Apply for Certification

By Diane Sears

During the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the U.S. military, and before that tumultuous time spanning from 1980 to 2011, LGBTQ+ service members were routinely kicked out of their jobs for being themselves. Many are still feeling the repercussions, being denied full access to benefits their straight counterparts have received as a matter of course, including healthcare, VA loan programs, tuition assistance and some jobs.

But for those who went on to start their own companies, an agreement among three organizations that provide third-party certifications for business owners looking to handle corporate contracts is offering some relief. The groups are welcoming LGBTQ+ vets into their organizations — without the red tape they might get from the government.

New data recently reported by CBS News (read the article at bit.ly/CBS-military-discrimination) shows the scope of the military discrimination LGBTQ+ vets suffered before, during and after “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” According to the data, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by legal services organization Legal Aid At Work, 35,801 individuals “received a discharge or separation because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct, sexual perversion, or any other related reason from October 1, 1980, to September 20, 2011,” the article read.

About 81% of those cases, or about 29,000, were denied honorable discharge. The figures are still being debated, along with what the U.S. military should do to correct the situation.

In the meantime, in recent years, an advocate at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) decided to do something to help the LGBTQ+ vets. As an organization that certifies companies as LGBTQ+ owned to do business with corporations, NGLCC had no hesitation about allowing those vets to join.

Casey Oakes, who was serving as the NGLCC’s vice president of corporate relations at the time, spoke with representatives at two other organizations where dishonorably discharged veterans seek certification: the National Veteran-Owned Business Association (NaVOBA), which certifies veterans’ business enterprises, and Disability:IN, which certifies disability-owned enterprises.

NaVOBA and Disability:IN had bylaws requiring veterans to be honorably discharged to qualify for certification. Collaborating with the NGLCC, they both decided to waive their requirements for LGBTQ+ veterans to show proof of an honorable discharge before being considered.

“We all have the ability to make the spaces we operate in more inclusive and accessible,” says Oakes, now head of community impact at Google. “I simply shared my experience working with LGBTQ+ veterans with NaVOBA and Disability:IN and they did the important work of updating their certification procedures to honor the service of LGBTQ+ veterans.”

Matthew Pavelek, president and CEO of NaVOBA, credits Oakes and the NGLCC for bringing the plight of the dishonorably discharged veterans to his attention. “In my naivete, I asked, ‘Why wouldn’t they just apply for an upgraded discharge?’” he says. But the negative experience of going back to an entity that had basically labeled them on par with traitors could dig up old stress and pain, and it would take extra time the business owners don’t necessarily have. The easier solution was to accept them, Pavelek says.

“We know, from looking at your discharge paperwork, exactly the reason you were discharged,” Pavelek says. “So if the code says that, then OK, you’re welcome to join us as is. We know you shouldn’t have been kicked out for that. As far as we’re concerned, you are honorable and you’re welcome.”

To learn more about NaVOBA, visit NAVOBA.org.