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Changing Times at the VA

by

Mike Rankin

July 1, 2009
When President Clinton took office, he issued a directive protecting gay and lesbian federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The last of the federal agencies to comply was the Veterans Administration.  During the Bush years, that protection was removed. 

From l986 to l996, I was Chief of Psychiatry and Mental Health Services at the Oakland VAMC.  My boss was so homophobic that when I created an Outward Bound program for HIV positive veterans, he demanded to know why I was “wasting time on those ‘losers,’ they are all going to die anyway.”  If I challenged him on any issue, he would threaten to send me to the rural Redding clinic, 200 miles north of my home in San Francisco, saying “you really should live in a more ‘family friendly’ environment.”

Not only was he not disciplined for his prejudice, he was promoted to chief at a larger hospital. 

 I’m happy to say times have changed at the Veterans Administration, as I learned on June 30th when I spoke at the first ever Pride Month Observance at VA Central Office in Washington.

My fellow panelists were a couple of high powered and very articulate lesbian attorneys who minced no words talking about workplace discrimination and protections, in the VA and elsewhere in the government.  They had asked us to focus especially on issues of particular importance to VA staff, instead of veterans or active duty military.  The women did that. I covered my own experience as a VA physician, but as the only military man on the panel, I also spoke about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the discharge of some of our finest military men and women.  I spoke in my Navy whites.   

The keynote speaker Was John Berry, director of the OPM, and the highest ranking openly gay member of the Obama administration.  He was introduced by Scott Gould, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  Several other VA Deputy Secretaries were present as well—they obviously took this event very seriously, and it showed. Apparently Secretary Shenseki was visiting a VA center somewhere in the Midwest.  I really think he’d have been there if he’d been in town.

 Even the chaplain who offered the invocation and benediction—a soft spoken African American man, and Chief of the Chaplain Service at the VA, could not have been more affirming. 

Wearing my Navy whites, I covered DADT of course, sharing some of my personal experiences as a 32 year Navy physician and an 18 year VA doc.  

Berry was passionate about the need to end DADT and DOMA, and to pass the Tammy Baldwin bill that would mandate equal benefits for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender government workers.  He said he would enforce it the minute it passes. 

I was a good event, a celebration really.  All who worked hard to put it together should be proud of themselves.  Gay or straight, they are on our side.

But one key element was missing—there was no transgender spokesperson.  They said time constraints wouldn’t allow an additional panelist.  I don’t know whether that was the reason, or the only reason. During the question and answer period, I brought it up as a voice we should be hearing, and people applauded.  I doubt the planners will make that mistake again.   They are already talking about making the observance an annual event.

  2009 Gay Military Signal