March 31 is Transgender Day of Visibility and this year I’m reflecting on what it means to live as both a veteran and a trans person in 2022. On this day each spring, trans people celebrate the lives of those in our community who have made it this far and speak out about the ongoing discrimination we face.
This year marks a decade since I returned home from military service. The scars of those years, literal and figurative, live at the forefront of my mind. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and looking as I do now — short hair, no makeup, and clothing and appearance others view as masculine — I received continuous abuse that I was forced to remain silent about. Today, I lead Minority Veterans of America, where I have found my voice to speak out against the abuses so many of us endured just to serve our country.
We launched Minority Vets 12 days after President Donald Trump announced by tweet he was banning transgender people from military service. But even as this policy got plenty of attention, many still don’t realize there remains a ban on nonbinary people serving in their authentic gender and an outright ban on intersex service.
The military’s long-standing anti-LGBTQ+ policies have allowed a culture permissive of hate, discrimination, and identity-based harassment to fester and harm far too many who served. To see the effects, one need look no further than the statistics on suicide, military sexual trauma, and mental health crisis for LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans. Our community has been disproportionately harmed and we carry those wounds with us. Unfortunately, we are also left to face a VA system that too often replicates the same harmful, discriminatory culture we hoped to leave behind and recover from.
Last December, while receiving healthcare at the VA Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, I was humiliated by a staff member who stood in the door of the women’s restroom I was using, shouting repeated questions about a man in the women’s restroom. That person he thought was a man was me. When we finally reached the understanding that I’m not a man, he feigned an apology, explaining that this traumatic moment in my life was for the purpose of protecting VA patients and VA staff.
I replied, “I am the patient.”
Among trans veterans, these stories are commonplace. The VA purports to care for all veterans, only we keep finding that “all” simply doesn’t include veterans like us.
Even after President Joe Biden lifted the onerous ban on binary transgender military service, a change we fought long and hard for, I faced deep fears when I came out to those closest to me as trans nonbinary. At 35 years old, something deep within me believed the world might stop and I’d lose all I had fought so hard to build. Though it hasn’t been easy, my community and those I call family have shown up to love me just as I am.
Despite the fear and pain so many of us feel, I’m inspired by the allies and fellow advocates who ask what they can do to help demand change from VA and the veterans community more broadly.
Here are my answers:
- VA facilities must ensure that all patients and visitors can move freely without the harassment or harm that has been endemic for women and LGBTQ+ people. If VA is safe for transgender veterans, staff, and visitors, then VA will be safe for the broadly diverse population of veterans it’s charged with serving.
- VA needs to ensure all facilities have more safe restrooms where no veteran needs to dread someone causing a scene or ousting them because they’re transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
- VA must collect comprehensive demographic data, including on gender identity and sexual orientation. This currently isn’t even tracked and is a glaring gap in VA’s health equity efforts.
- VA must allow veterans the option to designate “X” as their gender marker in VA records; denying this option places an undue burden on nonbinary veterans to explain their identity over and over again to every provider they see.
- VA must acknowledge that transgender healthcare is healthcare. VA must include gender affirming surgeries in the medical benefits package.
VA can’t change if veterans service organizations and our communities across the country don’t also change. It’s time for our community to have some tough conversations about the toxic culture that exists for transgender veterans. The culture we’ve created to survive literal wars must evolve to reflect the camaraderie that we all consider the best part of who we are. As a veteran community, we say often that we leave no one behind. We must live this value and fight to ensure that our transgender siblings-in-arms and veterans receive the care and community they earned.
Lindsay Church is executive director and co-founder of Minority Veterans of America.
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