Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
VA National Pride Month Kickoff
June 1, 2022
Well, good afternoon, everyone, and Happy Pride Month!
Kara Merendo, thanks for that kind introduction, for the opportunity to help kick off VA’s Second Annual Pride Month, and—more importantly—thank you, Kara, for devoting more than 35 years to Veterans and our great employees who serve them.
Harvey Johnson, I know you’ve had a big hand in making this Pride Month great at VA. Thank you for that, for your service in the Army, and your leadership of VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Let me also recognize Lynn Berry. Lynn, it was your initiative back in January 2021 that gave VA our first National Virtual Pride Month last June. So, to Lynn—and to all the folks across the country who have worked together to get us to this celebration once again—congratulations on what promises to be another spectacular Pride Month Program.
And, thanks to all of you for joining us today.
This day and this month are, in fact, a celebration. It’s a celebration of more than one million lesbian, gay, and bisexual Veterans in the United States. It’s a celebration of the thousands of VA employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. It’s a celebration of a country and VA that have come a long way toward equity and equality. And it is so very important.
Because listen, the differences that celebrations like this make, the differences that you are making for VA, your colleagues, and the Veterans we serve, is powerful. It can be life changing. And in many cases, it can be even miraculous for the Veterans we serve. Let me give you one example.
Bob was a gay World War II Veteran. Which is to say, Bob was one of thousands of Americans who fought to defend rights and freedoms he could not even enjoy himself. He witnessed the persecution of his fellow gay service members as the earliest seeds of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were sown, and he witnessed the enormous cruelty of the mid-20th century Lavender Scare and brutal government policies that destroyed thousands of gay civil servants’ careers, and their lives.
Bob’s partner, Matt, was a gay Veteran, too, a Veteran of the Vietnam era. Matt had to lie about who he was in order to serve, even at a time when too many people around him were lying to avoid serving.
Long story short, one day, Bob and Matt met in Indiana, and they fell in love. For 35 years, they were loving, devoted partners in that community. But for those 35 years, Bob—understandably, given all the cruelty he’d seen and endured in his life as a gay man—felt compelled to hide his true self.
Their cover was that Bob was Matt’s uncle, that Matt was taking care of his “Uncle” Bob, which, in so many ways, he was taking care of Bob. They both got their health care at VA. Sometimes Matt would take Bob. Sometimes Matt would go alone. And without fail, when Matt came home after an appointment, Bob would nervously ask him, “You didn’t tell them, did you? You didn’t tell them we’re gay?”
Matt never did. You see, both Bob and Matt were members of those generations of Veterans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and 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. Until one day, that all changed for Matt.
Bob had passed away, and Matt had left Indiana for his home in Wisconsin. A few years later, he needed medical care, which took him to his Madison VA Medical Center. And Matt will tell you, on that very first visit, something amazing happened.
When Matt started treatment, his VA doctor asked him, “What brings you up here to Madison?” Matt said, "Well, for 35 years, I took care of my Uncle Bob. He passed away, and I moved up here." And Matt started shaking and crying. His doctor asked him, “Matt, is there something you're not telling me?"
And a weight was lifting from his shoulders. He said, “Bob was my partner.” And then that miracle happened. The doctor smiled, gave Matt a big hug, and said, "Matthew ... we love everybody."
We love everybody. Think about that. After a lifetime lived in fear of being found out, right then, with that VA doc, Matt could be everything that he is, could be who he is. And let me tell you –that’s worth celebrating!
That’s just one example of how far we’ve come, how far you all are bringing VA, and this great country. Because for generations, 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.
Well, I’m so proud to be able to say that Americans of all gender and sexual identities now have the freedom to serve. The country draws on their strength. 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 I’m so proud of all of you here at VA and all you’re doing to continue down that path of progress.
And listen, we know—it is imperative that all employees and Veterans, including the LGBTQ+ members, have a voice in how we operate so we can continue moving forward, together. That’s why our first ever Pride Employee Resource Group is so important—a social space for LGBTQ+ employees and allies that’s providing advice, support, and direction in our collective efforts on behalf of VA employees and Veterans.
That’s why we’re working hard to improve our understanding of LGBTQ+ needs and expectations—reviewing our policies, reviewing our procedures, and changing our behavior, to ensure we’re fostering a welcoming, open environment for all Veterans.
That’s why we’ve been interviewing employees and Veterans—hearing your stories and learning from your struggles ... and your triumphs.
- Why we’re flying the Gay Pride Flag at our facilities this month and making our hospitals more welcoming for LGTBQ+ Vets—so they know, we are here for them,
- Why VA health records display gender identity and preferred name, and the new Electronic Health Record EHR includes options for Vets’ pronouns, gender identity, preferred name, and sexual orientation,
- Why we’re reviewing the rulemaking process so we can expand VA’s gender affirming care and benefits packages for transgender Veterans,
- Why we’re piloting the pronoun usage program so employees can self-identify their preferences,
- And why we’re reviewing Veterans’ Character of Discharges to identify any Veterans forced from service due to sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status so they can receive the benefits they’ve earned, and deserve, and have been denied.
And of course, you’re doing so much more than what I just highlighted, often in the most quiet but most powerful ways in your own spaces.
But you all know as well as anyone, we still have a ways to go. So, you are going to have keep leading us, and helping us get closer to where we need to be—for you, our colleagues, and for the Veterans we serve.
Because at VA, Pride Counts.
We have to keep working, earnestly, to ensure all Veterans, including LGBTQ+ Veterans like Bob and Matt, are treated with the respect and care they deserve and have, in fact, earned—and provided health care for the Veterans they are.
We have to keep engaging, educating, and raising awareness to inform and normalize LGBTQ+ Veterans’ health care across VA offices.
That’s why we’re here, right now, thousands of us, together, celebrating who we are, with joy and without fear; celebrating LGBTQ+ Vets and employees, and pledging to continue down that path of progress ... being visible, showing support, standing up, being counted.
Now, there’s so much I could say, but it all boils down to this. Our diversity is our strength. It’s never a weakness. And every person entering a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination. Likewise, every employee serving Veterans must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination.
And we will welcome all employees, just like we welcome all Veterans. Because for far too long, too many Veterans like Matt, Veterans like Uncle Bob, who fought to protect our rights and freedoms have had to fight, like many of you, brutal battles here at home for those same rights and freedoms.
Tragically, many of those fights continue to this day. But at VA, largely thanks to you and so many allies, those fights are over. At VA, those fights are over. Nobody is going to have to fight to get the quality care, benefits, and services they earned—no matter who they are, or who they love. And celebrations like this are affirmations of that simple fact.
So, thank you for your compassion, your devotion, and your truly magnificent spirits and incredible work. Have a great, productive, fulfilling, and rejuvenating Pride Month.
God bless you, God bless our Nation’s troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
And may we always give LGBTQ+ Veterans and all Veterans—each and every Veteran—our very best.