VA Reaches Out To LGBTQ Vets

Jun 24, 2018
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SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

The Veterans Health Administration wants LGBTQ vets to feel comfortable coming to the VA for care. So VA medical centers across the country have been hosting outreach events throughout June, which is Pride Month. New Hampshire Public Radio's Britta Greene reports from one community where VA staff are taking a particularly fabulous approach.

BRITTA GREENE, BYLINE: Friday evening - and VA social worker Calvin Smith is staring himself down in a crowded hotel bathroom, trying to get his makeup right.

CALVIN SMITH: I have no idea what I'm doing (laughter). I watched a ton of YouTube videos.

GREENE: In just a few hours at a nearby bar, he'll be performing in a drag show organized by the White River Junction VA Medical Center. To start, he's applying a thick layer of blue glitter eye shadow.

SMITH: It's really difficult to get this right. I've already, like, started all over three or four times.

GREENE: The goal of the show is to get a simple message out to the community here in this rural area spanning Vermont and New Hampshire. The VA welcomes all veterans regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. And Smith says veterans should feel comfortable being open about who they are and who they love with their doctors.

SMITH: I remember the first time I went to the VA for health care - sitting in the waiting room and looking around and seeing lots of much older veterans and just feeling so out of place, like, I don't belong here.

GREENE: The effects of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and bans on transgender service linger, he says.

SMITH: Like, for example, transgender female veterans I've seen come dressed as a boy to the VA I think sometimes just to avoid the potential of a problem. So there's that fear.

GREENE: From a health perspective, though, it's important to reach this population. The VA says LGBT veterans have an even higher risk for PTSD, depression and suicide than veterans overall. Smith's work over the past couple years is part of a national program started under the Obama administration. It includes not just outreach but also internal education.

LYNN MARSHALL: I mean, we had no formalized medical training in LGBTQ health care.

GREENE: Lynn Marshall is the women's health medical director at the White River Junction VA. She's been taking advantage of available trainings and is working hard to make patients feel comfortable.

MARSHALL: It usually comes out when I ask explicitly, you know, do you have a significant other or a partner? And they'll look sheepishly sometimes at me and say, well, yes. And her name is Linda (ph).

GREENE: This simple gesture - asking about a partner rather than a boyfriend or husband - can make a big difference. It signals a change to a culture of acceptance, says Katie Taylor. She's a transgender veteran who served in the 1970s. She says the drag show, in particular, is remarkable for two reasons. One, it's a celebration of LGBTQ vets.

KATIE TAYLOR: And there are very, very, very few of those events that ever happen. The other - this was initiated, organized by VA staff. And that is - tap me with a feather, and I'll keel over because that's not what the VA does.

BRYNN COLE: Ladies and gentlemen...

GREENE: As the lights dim at the drag show, people crowd near the stage. And the MC, VA employee Brynn Cole, grabs the mic.

COLE: Welcome to the gayest show on Earth.

(CHEERING)

COLE: But first, I just have to say the VA is here for its queers. And we are proud to serve all veterans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYMN")

KESHA: (Singing) Even the stars and the moon...

GREENE: Halfway through the night, Calvin Smith, his blue glitter eye shadow sparkling, takes the stage. Smith has transformed into his drag persona, Britney Queers, in a plaid miniskirt and long blonde braids. The crowd leans in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYMN")

KESHA: (Singing) This is a hymn for the hymn-less...

GREENE: For NPR News, I'm Britta Greene in White River Junction, Vt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYMN")

KESHA: (Singing) ...Got to keep on singing. Hymn for the hymn-less - don't need no forgiveness 'cause if there's a heaven, don't care if we get in. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.