Editors' note: Monica Helms is the president of the Transgender American Veterans Association. She blogs at Trans Universe.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote "Transgender veterans and navigating the VA system" about the two wonderful articles written by Carol Ann Alaimo of the Arizona Daily Star and my attempt to find a person in the VA to speak with about our issues.
It seems our efforts to speak with someone of authority paid off. On Friday, March 6, Angela Brightfeather and I spoke with a female doctor in a high position in the VA. I will not reveal her name or title at this time, nor will I provide any specifics of what she said, because this is an ongoing process.
Angela and I prepared to ask certain question, but as many of you may know, it doesn't always work as planned. When we connected with the doctor, she had brought in another doctor to speak with us. We quickly discovered that both women had extensive experiences with transgender people in their days working in the field for the VA. They actually volunteered to be the first ones in the VA to speak with us.
One of the first issues we talked about had to do with the discrimination transgender veterans get when trying to receive basic services and the disrespect they get when they do receive services. Our request was to have the VA send out a directive/letter to the VA administrators, informing them that they cannot turn away qualified transgender veterans and that they should receive the same respect as other veterans.
The doctors pointed out that even with a letter being sent out, without the proper training, the disrespect could continue. We understood this, but pointed out that if a letter existed, then our people could take a copy of it to the Patient Advocate in the facility and use it to give their complaint more clout. The doctor saw that our idea could help and stated that she would have the appropriate department contact us on the content of the letter.
We briefly brought up that in some cases, the VA refused to change a transgender veteran's documentation, even after a legal name and gender change. The doctor stated that this practice is not only wrong, but legally wrong. The same department who will be able to help us on the discrimination issue will also be able to address this one.
The doctor stated that she would be attending various Patient Advocate training sessions and she plans on training them on our issues. TAVA will be assisting them when possible. We informed her that she can also get help in training from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE.) What it appears they will need is the basic Transgender 101 training, something we have all done many times. Both NCTE and IFGE now have wonderful knowledge on our veterans' issues.
Then the conversation turned to the policies that for so long have hindered transgender veterans from receiving the medically necessary treatment for their situation. Angela and I discovered that even though these are policies and not laws, the ability to change them will be a long and tedious process that could take years. After hearing how the process will work, I came to the conclusion that passing a fully inclusive ENDA will be far easier then wading through the massive bureaucracy of the VA system.
TAVA may soon come away with a small win in this long struggle for equality for our transgender veterans if we get the letter we are looking for. The bigger win will be a process that only has few people willing to spend any time in resolving the problems, compared to millions who will be pushing for hate crimes and ENDA. Our organization has very little money to work on this and even less time to spend on it. No full-time lobbyist works for TAVA. No fundraising events or huge gala dinners loom in our future. All we have is the basics and grassroots activism. This maybe enough, but we could use some serious help in moving this process along, seeing how we are now inside the door. Sadly, there are too many deaf ears out there that this plea will fall on. We will keep everyone informed on our progress. It would be nice if this first step has given some of our veterans a glimmer of hope. It has me.