Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Orlando VA Healthcare System’s 11th Annual Pride Month Celebration
Orlando, FL
June 19, 2021

Thank you, Keri. Good afternoon everyone, and welcome.  

There are many people to thank for making this event happen and for all of their years of tireless advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights and care both here at VA and beyond.  

First, my thanks to Keri Griffin, who has done an amazing job here in Orlando serving as both the LGBTQ+ Veteran Care Coordinator and also the LGBTQ+ Special Emphasis Program Manager for employees. Keri’s often done this work for free, in her spare hours, hosting the first ever PRIDE event here 11 years ago—back when it was just a few folks in a basketball gym—and bringing us all the way to today. Thank you, Keri, for all you’ve done.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also recognize Elizabeth Jackson, our Orlando Vet Center Outreach Specialist, who works with Keri and the Vet Center to offer life-changing support services for eligible Veterans, service members, and their families.

Thanks as well to Dr. Jillian Shipherd and Dr. Michael Kauth, our fantastic national LGBTQ+ Health Program Directors.

And thanks to all of you who have joined us today.

This day and this month are a celebration. A celebration of the one million lesbian, gay, and bisexual Veterans in the United States. A celebration of the nearly eight percent of VA employees who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and the thousands of our employees who identify as transgender. A celebration of a country and VA that have come a long way toward equity and equality.  

I am proud to stand here, on behalf of President Biden, to say to all LGBTQ+ Vets, servicemembers, allies, and family members that at VA you will be treated with respect, compassion, and care. You deserve our very best, and I promise that we will give you nothing less;

But even as I say those words, I cannot help but think of the shadow they cast. The fact that they need to be said is a reminder that for far too long—and for far too many—acceptance, respect, and care were not the norm for LGBTQ+ Veterans. Far from it.

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.”

That is the dark history we must overcome, at VA and in America. And it echoes to this day in horrific incidents like the Pulse Night Club shooting that devastated this community five years ago, and in the statistics that show that 80 percent of LGBTQ+ Vets have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military.

But Matlovich’s dream, and the dream of those who came before and after him, has in so many ways come true. “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2010 and formally ended the next year. Marriage equality became the law of the land five years later. And the transgender ban on military service was repealed by President Biden on his fifth day in office.

Today, I am so proud to say that Americans of all gender and sexual identities now have the freedom to serve. And although there is still much work to be done, and the vestiges of bigotry remain, I am encouraged by the progress that’s been made. And here at VA, we are determined to continue down that path of progress.  

That is why I am announcing today that we are taking the first necessary steps to expand VA’s care to include gender confirmation surgery, thus allowing transgender Vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side.

Now, this process will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety of transgender Veterans. There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to Veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care. This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender Veterans have called for and deserved for a long time, and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it.

Additionally, we are changing the name of VHA’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program, language that proudly reflects new community standards of inclusiveness and anticipates future changes in terms.  

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.

To that end, we’re making a concerted effort to create a safe and caring environment for LGBTQ+ Veterans in all of our hospitals. In fact, one of my first actions as VA Secretary was ordering a top-down review of all of our policies to determine how we can make VA a more welcoming place.

We’ve found that even something as simple as displaying VA-specific rainbow magnets has proven to make our hospitals more welcoming, signaling to LGTBQ+ Vets that we are here for them. We offer both group and individual counseling services, as well as “Pride in All Who Served,” a 10-week health education group that significantly reduces suicidal ideation and anxiety among LGBTQ+ Veterans. And every VA medical facility now has an LGBTQ+ Veteran care coordinator, a VCC, who can help Vets find the care they need.

Now, we recognize that some folks might be wary of sharing or talking about sexual orientation or gender identity with their health care provider. And we understand that, completely. But to those folks, I want to assure you that that VA health care providers keep all information confidential. Each and every one of them has undergone rigorous training to ensure that nothing you tell us goes beyond the walls of VA. And if providers violate this trust, they’re violating the law, and they will face serious consequences.

All of which is to say that you can trust your provider to keep your conversations and records private. Rest assured that even if the way you identify is not known by your family and friends, your provider will never reveal it to them. By discussing all aspects of your identity with your health care provider, you can help them give you the best possible care for your personal needs.

The Orlando Medical Center is proof that these policies are already saving lives. A few years ago, a transgender woman Veteran was struggling. Her depression had worsened as a result of feeling caged in a body that wasn’t hers, and she began to consider taking her own life. Then she called the Orlando VAMC and did something she never expected to do: she said aloud, for the first time ever, the words “I am transgender.”

That is the trust that this health care system has developed: after 39 years of silence, a transgender woman Veteran was willing to tell us her secret. And we were ready to help. Today, she’s not suicidal, and she wakes up each day as her authentic self. And she thanks Orlando VA Health Care System and Keri Griffin for all their efforts, saying, “I don’t know what I would do without [them].” That’s a job well done, and it’s what we aspire to at every VA across America.

You know, when President Biden nominated me to lead VA, he told me to fight like hell for our Vets. And when he said that, he meant all Veterans. Because, as he says, our most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. 

That sacred obligation means that when the brave young people who signed up to serve our country transition to civilian life, we owe them. We owe them a debt of gratitude. We owe them care and benefits. And, perhaps most of all, we owe them a chance to experience all the freedoms that they joined the military to uphold.

For LGBTQ+ Veterans, we have long failed to keep those most sacred promises. But, under the leadership of President Biden and this administrationand the care of the amazing providers at VAwe’re going to do better.

No matter who you are or who you love, there is care, compassion, and respect for you at VA. We will serve LGBTQ+ Veterans just like they served our country. Our commitment to them, and to all Veterans, has never been stronger.

Happy Pride to all of you. May God bless you, our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give you our very best.

Thank you.