Changing Times at the VA
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
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
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.
Gay Military Signal