Did you know that the last full week of the month of March is LGBT+ Health Awareness Week?
Since 2003, LGBT+ Health Awareness Week has sought to highlight the importance of LGBT+ health and wellness and bring awareness of the unique care needs of the LGBT+ community. Additionally, LGBT+ Health Awareness Week seeks to bring to light the reasons members of the LGBT+ community are more likely to get sick and less likely to afford vital health care: discrimination in employment, relationship recognition, and insurance coverage. Even in 2021, the LGBT+ community continues to face issues with accessing and receiving care.
Perhaps one of the major reasons why access to health care is difficult is the process of “coming out” to a healthcare provider. As LGBT+ people, there may be hesitancy in telling a doctor that we are part of the community. Depending on where one falls on the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, having to disclose ourselves to a medical professional can be intimidating.
Within the LGBT+ Veteran community, coming out to a healthcare provider within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA) comes with its own weight. Veterans who have served before the 2011 repeal of the U.S. military’s discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) may carry varying levels of trauma depending on experience. For Veterans who served before DADT‘s inception in the early-1990s, there may be even more trauma because NO LGBT+ person could serve openly in ANY capacity. Being discharged for homosexuality or other charges related to homosexuality could carry with it the life-long label of “undesirable” especially if the character of the discharge was other than honorable (OTH). For context, read on.
Imagine if you volunteered to serve your country in the 1980s, then someone found out you were LGBT+; now imagine the humiliation and trauma of being investigated by the U.S. military before being deemed “undesirable.” Imagine having that characterization emblazoned on your DD Form 214 and having to explain why you were kicked out of the military for the rest of your life.
Now, imagine yourself in the military in the 1990s, you’re LGBT+ and DADT has allowed you to serve but you can’t serve openly. You have a few close friends who may know about you, you do your job to the best of your ability, and you take steps to ensure no one finds out about you. Imagine you decided to go out with a friend you trust to a club, you have a good time but sometime during the night, someone from your unit, your base sees you exit the club, and later decides to report you. You get called into your unit’s command and are asked about what was reported. If you admit it, you may be allowed to stay in. If you deny it, you could be investigated depending on what was found in the report and how reliable the word of the reporter was. You could stay in and get reassigned or get discharged honorably with caveats or OTH with caveats. In the days of DADT, LGBT+ Servicemembers had to learn the ins and outs of hiding sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if an LGBT+ Veteran was not discharged under the policy, the constant threat of being found out and the pressure of staying silent about oneself could present long-lasting health issues and traumas.
These examples are not the norm but they are illustrations of reasons why LGBT+ Veterans may not want to come out to his/her/their VA health care provider. Even within the VA, a Veteran may run into issues with coming out: the provider may not be up-to-date on LGBT+ policy (Yes, the VA does have these policies.) and end up misgendering the Veteran or outright showing disgust toward the Veteran. Though there are mechanisms in place for the VA to address issues with care and/or providers, the system may not always work.
And this is why LGBT+ Health Awareness Week is necessary.
The VA acknowledges that LGBT+ Veterans face unique health issues as opposed to heterosexual Veterans and they acknowledge that there are an estimated 1.5 million LGBT+ Veterans living in the United States today. Though while the VA knows this about LGBT+ Veterans as an agency, there are players in the health care environment that may not be at all aware that LGBT+ Veterans even exist. Within the last decade or so, the VA has had to progress to catch up with the American evolution on sexual orientation and gender identify. When DADT was repealed, the VA had to reach out to LGBT+ Veterans. When the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down, the VA had to adapt and open its programs to the same-sex spouses of LGBT+ Veterans. With the recent doing away of the military’s ban on transgender servicemembers, the VA has already been up-to-date with the times by established policy and procedures specific to transgender and intersex Veterans. But policy and procedure mean little if the VA health care providers fail to read up and understand how to apply and act when an LGBT+ Veteran is called in for an appointment.
This week, the SITREP will promote LGBT+ Health Awareness Week along with other agencies by relaying information and resources for LGBT+ people and LGBT+ Veterans specifically. The information expressed will hopefully bring to light some knowledge that we, the LGBT+ Veteran community, are here, that we exist.
The lead for National LGBT Health Awareness Week is the National Coalition for LGBT Health; this year’s theme is “Out for Equity” and it highlights the need for ongoing engagement of the LGBT+ community on healthcare issues and is intended to motivate the LGBT+ community to be OUT for Equity by advocating for LGBT+ health and mobilizing voter turnout in support of LGBT+ health equity.
- Monday, March 22nd: Advocacy
- Tuesday, March 23rd: Voting
- Wednesday, March 24th: Non-discrimination
- Thursday, March 25th: COVID-19
- Friday, March 26th: HIV & PrEP
- Saturday, March 27th: Trans Health
- Sunday, March 28th: LGBT Seniors
The SITREP will also seek to promote the VA’s LGBT Health Awareness Week campaign; this year, the VA has chosen the following theme: Let’s Talk! Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Matter in Health Care. It’s a little long-winded but, really, good enough for government work.