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VA Secretary orders greater LGBTQ inclusivity in agency care for veterans

“My goal as secretary is to make sure VA is welcoming to all veterans, including our transgender veterans,” he said.

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Veterans Administration Secretary Denis McDonough (Photo Credit: Official VA Photo)

WASHINGTON – Veterans Administration Secretary McDonough issued a memorandum Tuesday directing his agency to review its policies and procedures as it relates to the care of LGBTQ veterans, their families, caregivers, survivors, and employees.

McDonough told reporters in a briefing that he expected the policy review would be finished by March 30.

“My goal as secretary is to make sure VA is welcoming to all veterans, including our transgender veterans,” he said.

McDonough stressed that he and his agency would focus on inclusivity, diversity and equity under his tenure as VA secretary following  President Biden’s recently signed Executive Orders (Enabling All Qualified Americans to Serve Their Country in Uniform, signed on January 25, 2021, and Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation, signed on January 20, 2021)

The Secretary told reporters that as he chooses his leadership team he will ensure that there would be full compliance with the president’s executive orders. He didn’t volunteer any further information on potential candidates for those positions.

“That will be a really important piece of demonstrating my seriousness about diversity and inclusion,” he said. “Our political appointees to date reflect that, and that’s intentional.”

Under the terms of the memo VA Under Secretaries and Staff Offices directed to execute the following:

Conduct a policy review to determine whether any regulations, directives, policies and procedures promote equity for and inclusion of LGBT Veterans, families, caregivers, survivors or employees. Design and implement a remediation plan if the review identifies discriminatory policies towards LGBT beneficiaries and employees.  

Perform an assessment of the necessary steps to eliminate the exclusion of “gender alterations” as currently stated in the medical benefits package, more commonly referred to as gender affirmation care and services, to include assessment of statutory and regulatory requirements as well as funding, staffing, technology and other resources required to provide all medically necessary services. 

Develop means to measure the experience of LGBT beneficiaries and employees and to include their perspectives in the development of future guidance and any barriers that LGBT beneficiaries and employees may face in accessing the full range of VA care, benefits and services are identified and addressed. 

Develop a plan to ensure that employees are trained on inclusive, respectful and welcoming interaction with LGBT beneficiaries and implement an enterprise plan to enhance data and information systems with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity, such that beneficiaries and employees may independently and securely self-identify and be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns.

Stars and Stripes reported that McDonough also promised to address racial inequity at the agency during the news briefing. Last year, a group of Black VA employees organized to voice their experience with racism, which they said was made worse by leaders who refused to address it.

“Confronting this question of racial inequity will be a fundamental part of my tenure here, not least because the president is demanding it,” he said.

The VA currently provides LGBTQ specific care to veterans. California, the most populous state in the nation, has the largest veteran population (1.56 million) including LGBTQ vets.

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Military Special

Breaking the silence: 10 years after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A special program exploring the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight to repeal it and how it continues to affect those who serve

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The Military Women's Memorial at the gateway entrance to Arlington National Cemetery (Photo Credit: Military Women's Memorial)

ARLINGTON – This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. This change in legislation allowed countless lesbian, gay and bisexual servicemembers to serve openly, but the negative effects of the policy continue to affect veterans today.

The Military Women’s Memorial put on a special program exploring the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight to repeal it and how it continues to affect those who serve. MG (R) Tammy Smith joins to discuss her career, how she lived her life under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military and her advocacy to repeal the policy.

The program also explores how the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy continues to impact people’s lives. The program Saturday, October 2, 2021, is moderated by Jennifer Dane, Air Force veteran and president of the Modern Military Association of America.

Breaking the Silence: 10 Years After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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Military Special

VA Secretary announces benefits for vets discharged under DADT

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced about 14,000 service members out of the military during the 17 years that the policy was in place

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Graphic via The Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that LGBTQ veterans who were given ‘other-than-honorable discharges’ under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy before its repeal in 2011, will now be eligible for VA benefits, including health care, disability compensation, home loans and burial benefits.

Timing of the new policies was made to coincide with the anniversary of the repeal of DADT on Monday.

In a blog post Monday, Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs in VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs wrote:

“At VA, we continuously work not only to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ Veterans, but also to address ongoing issues that LGBTQ+ Veterans face as a result of the military’s decades-long official policy of homophobia and transphobia,” Williams, who identifies as bisexual continued, “[…] LGBTQ+ Veterans are not any less worthy of the care and services that all Veterans earn through their service, and VA is committed to making sure that they have equal access to those services.”

Under the new guidance VA Secretary Denis McDonough sent to VA adjudicators on Monday, VA adjudicators, who decide whether to approve veterans’ claims for VA benefits, will no longer consider veterans ineligible because of their discharges for sexual orientation or gender identity, said Williams.

The VA will award a veteran his or her benefits unless the person’s military record shows another reason that he or she doesn’t qualify.

This policy statement does not represent a change in law, as Veterans who were discharged under DADT alone have been generally eligible for benefits under current statute and regulation. However, this policy reiterates what constitutes eligibility for benefits under law.

In addition, every ‘Character of Discharge’ case that is initially considered for denial will also get a second look before that action is taken. Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ Veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, “we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” Williams wrote.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced about 14,000 service members out of the military during the 17 years that the policy was in place. The policy was enacted under former President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993, and it was repealed by former President Barack Obama on Sept. 20, 2011.

“Although VA recognizes that the trauma caused by the military’s decades-long policy of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people cannot be undone in a few short months, the Biden administration and Secretary McDonough are taking the steps necessary to begin addressing the pain that such policies have created,” Williams said.

“Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” she added.

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Military Special

LGBTQ Vets with ‘less than honorable’ discharges will receive VA benefits

This will extend medical care, disability payouts, employment assistance & other benefits previously blocked

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The United States Department of Veterans Affairs Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA)

TYSONS CORNERS, Va. – Sources within the United States Department of Veterans Affairs have told Military Times this week that tens of thousands of LGBTQ veterans who were discharged from the U.S. armed services over the past seventy years, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, will soon be able to receive full Veterans Affairs benefits.

In an article published Friday, Military Times White House Bureau Chief and Veterans Affairs correspondent Leo Shane III reported that an official announcement is set for sometime Monday, the tenth anniversary of the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ law signed by then President Obama.

U.S. Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has made a commitment to honoring the service of LGBTQ Veterans pledging to make the VA a place that “welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color, and LGBTQ veterans.” 

In a Pride month speech this past June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System’s 11th Annual Pride Month Celebration, the Secretary highlighted the record of the first Gay man to openly challenged the military ban on LGBTQ service, Technical Sergeant Leonard Phillip Matlovich, United States Air Force:

For generations, service members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or related identities faced brazen discrimination or even worse—not just in our Armed Forces, but in so many aspects of their lives. They lived in fear—of shunning, of violence, of having their lives turned upside down. And when it came to putting on the uniform and serving our country, they feared being denied that higher calling, too, simply because of who they were and who they loved.

When I think of those injustices, I think of Leonard Matlovich. Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam War Veteran, a recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and a gay man who came out to the military and the world by appearing on the cover of TIME magazine in 1975.

He quickly became a symbol of defiance and freedom for so many LGBTQ+ people in America. He was also quickly issued an Other Than Honorable discharge from the Armed Forces, despite twelve years of decorated service.

Years later, after Matlovich passed, his grave became a rallying site for LGBTQ+ servicemembers everywhere. Instead of his name, he chose to inscribe his gravestone with a short phrase: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The Secretary made it clear that the VA bureaucracy is capable of implementing this new policy although Shane noted that individuals with dishonorable discharges or clear criminal history documented in their service records will still not be granted benefits under the new plan.

The new move will extend VA medical care, disability payouts, employment assistance and other benefits individuals previously blocked because of other-than-honorable discharges.

Department legal officials believe the change will not require any new legislative action or policy statements, because the department already has broad authority to interpret which veterans are eligible for department services, the Military Times reported.

During his Pride speech in Orlando, also addressed healthcare concerns for LGBTQ veterans, especially Trans vets:

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives. Due in part to minority stress, LGBTQ+ Veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community, but they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination. This perpetuates a cycle in which LGBTQ+ individuals have lower rates of access to preventive care services, utilize health care services less frequently, and have more negative experiences with health care.

That’s unacceptable. And at VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show Veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly, and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing.”

Further details are expected Monday as the Biden White House is also expected to mark the ending of DADT ten years ago. President Biden, who was Vice-President at the time has made LGBTQ equality rights a priority of his administration.

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