ACLU-NJ action challenges DOD’s denial to change discharge documents to reflect true gender of transgender former service members
On July 30, The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) submitted two applications to the Department of Defense’s Army Review Boards Agency on behalf of two New Jersey-based transgender military veterans who are petitioning to have their new legal names fully recognized by the Army. Specifically, they seek a change to the principal document that a military veteran uses to prove a veteran’s status, known as the “DD-214 Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.”
According to the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School, an estimated 134,300 American transgender veterans encounter substantial obstacles to obtaining post-service benefits because the names and genders memorialized on their military service discharge documents no longer match their names and genders following from the end of their service. This inconsistency might deprive them of benefits or services, or could subject them to invasive questions requiring personal information to explain discrepancies between documents.
The ACLU-NJ has taken action on behalf of Jennifer, a Sergeant Major who served in the United States Army for 29 years, and Nicolas, a New Jersey National Guardsman who served for 9 years. “It’s incredibly difficult when the self you present to the world doesn’t match a piece of paper meant to represent you,” said Jennifer, who served four tours including in Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving numerous awards for bravery. “I want my medical history to be protected and to be able to start a new chapter in my life without constantly being forced to look to the past.”
The DD-214 form determines veterans’ eligibility for benefits and legal protections tied to military service. Veterans need this document to engage in a wide range of activities in public life, including securing a home loan, taking the bar exam, or applying for a job with an employer that gives veterans preference in hiring. Transgender veterans not only risk the denial of these many benefits because of inconsistencies on the DD-214, but also face invasive questions every time this document is presented.
“When applying for a job, the only thing I want to bring with me is my qualifications – not a pile of papers explaining in unnecessary detail who I am,” said Nicolas, who served throughout the United States during his time with the National Guard. “With a simple fix, the military could make life much easier for countless veterans. With new regulations prohibiting discrimination against gender identity within the federal government, the federal government should take steps to make that kind of discrimination that much more unlikely.”
The DOD’s review board has thus far refused to amend the DD-214s, expressing an interest in preserving the historical accuracy of military records. However, the ACLU-NJ contends that the board has the authority – as well as an imperative -- to change this policy and thereby prevent the continued injustice facing transgender service members. Not changing the document is a form of discrimination against transgender veterans.
“Transgender service members bear substantial burdens when they cannot use their DD-214s without fear of discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Despite having served honorably in the military and earning the right to an accurate and complete picture of their military service, transgender veterans struggle with challenges the Department of Defense could easily alleviate by recognizing the needs of a group of veterans above an abstract principle. If anything, keeping the previous name is the greater inaccuracy, and the change would correct the record to reflect that veteran’s fundamental true identity.”