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VA Establishes LGBT
Special Emphasis Group
as EEO Effort Continues

by Danny Ingram
AVER President Emeritus

The establishment of “sexual orientation” as a protected class within the Department of Defense Military Equal Opportunity program has been a major priority for some time for American Veterans for Equal Rights and other organizations working towards equality for LGBT military service members, veterans, and their families.  Earlier this month, this designation became a reality, the culmination of a concerted effort by many LGBT activists and service organizations.  It has not been an easy victory, and the uphill battle has been going on for many years.  The designation of LGBT service members as a protected class is not only necessary for the security of our men and women in uniform, but carries significant implications for LGBT veterans as well. 

The Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) program was established as the primary means by which service members belonging to a "protected class" can receive help to redress complaints of harassment and discrimination.  According to the Air Force MEO Program website, "The MEO program seeks to eliminate unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment against military members, family members, and retirees based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion."  The first step in resolving an issue is to report it to immediate superiors, to use "the chain of command."  If a member of the military who belongs to one of the protected classes believes that they have attempted to resolve an issue of harassment or discrimination through the chain of command and have received no assistance, they can appeal to the MEO officer within their own unit for direct assistance.  Before LGB service members were added to the list of protected classes, they did not have this ability.  If their commander was unwilling to help, or was the source of the harassment, the only recourse open to LGB service members would be to seek help from the Inspector General, which is a very difficult, time consuming effort.  The difficulty of appealing to the IG, along with the very real possibility of prejudice within the chain of command, is the very reason that the MEO program was established. 

On May 10, 2010, before the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, American Veterans for Equal Rights joined a number of other LGBT organizations including Servicemembers United, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), in a meeting of the Department of Defense (DOD) Comprehensive Review Working Group at the Pentagon.  The Working Group had been tasked by President Obama with investigating how to repeal DADT policies inside the DOD.  The meeting was hosted by current Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, then the General Counsel of the DOD, andJohnson, General Counsel of the DOD, and General Carter Ham, Commanding General, US Army Europe, who is in charge of the Working Group. General Carter Ham, Commanding General, US Army Europe, who was in charge of the Working Group. 

The question was asked if “sexual orientation” would be added to the DOD’s list of protected classes in the official non-discrimination statement as a critical means of establishing real protection for LGB service members.  Some critics claimed that this protection was "bartered away" in order to secure votes for the Repeal bill.  Others claimed that such a non-discrimination statement would make the military's inability to grant equal benefits (including partner benefits) to LGB service members not only more obvious but more problematic.  In its research into the possibility of lifting the DADT ban, the Pentagon Working Group noted that many members of the military had strong negative feelings towards "special rights" in general, and were therefore opposed to making LGB personnel a protected class.  It became clear that the DOD did not intend to add “sexual orientation” as a protected class in the MEO policy. 

In March, 2011, following repeal, AVER returned to the Pentagon to attend a meeting at of the Repeal Implementation Team (RIT), the task force coordinating the removal of “Don’t Ask, Don’ Tell” policies in the Department of Defense.  The head of the RIT was Marine Major General Steven A. Hummer, Deputy Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, a 41 year veteran on the USMC.  In attendance along with AVER were representatives of SLDN, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, HRC, Outserve, Knights Out, Third Way, and Servicemembers United.  The question was asked again if the military would be designating LGB service members as a "protected class."  General Hummer confirmed that the DOD would not be establishing such protections.   There was much discussion of this issue around the table. A service member will only be able to go to their unit commander if they have a problem. What if the problem "is" the unit commander? What if the individual responsible for investigating a complaint "is" the person against whom the complaint has been filed? General Hummer said that the service member would have the option of going to the Inspector General. Several of the participants stated that it is a very big decision for an enlisted person to go to the IG. It is very intimidating to consider contacting the IG. Enlisted personnel will "not have much recourse.” Will IG be prepared to handle these issues? The general noted that this will be a “training” issue, including how to contact the IG if necessary.

AVER asked from the position of a Veterans Service Organization how the military's decision not to make LGB service members a protected class would affect the VA. An officer on the RIT responded that he had been working closely with the VA and they had reached a decision to "follow the military's lead on the issue." The VA would not consider LGB veterans to be a protected class and therefore would not have any special liaison or designated office established to assist LGB veterans who may have a complaint against the VA, or developing outreach and service programs designated to LGB veterans. 

AVER continued to push for the inclusion of LGB service members in the MEO program.  In 2013 I was invited as AVER National President to testify before the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Washington to speak on the subject current laws that discriminated against LGBT service members, veterans, and their families.  Along with calling for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was in fact overturned by the US Supreme Court later that year, I specifically requested that “sexual orientation” be added as a protected class to the MEO policy.  In 2014 newly elected National President LTC Steve Loomis, USA, (ret), testified before members of the US Congress about the continuing needs of LGBT service members and veterans, and he again noted the need to add “sexual orientation” to the MEO policy. 

Now that “sexual orientation” has been added to the MEO policy, AVER is extremely interested in seeing if the VA will in fact "follow the military's lead on the issue" and establish LGB veterans as a designated “Minority Group,” which would lead to the establishment of a funded office of outreach and special programs designed specifically for our veterans and their families. 

 We were extremely encouraged this week when we were contacted by a Program Analyst with the Veterans Benefits Administration who informed us that the VA has established LGB veterans as a Special Emphasis Group.  Both Denny Meyer and I talked with the analyst, who was extremely eager to establish working relationships with an LGBT Veterans Service Organization.  I discussed with him the possibility that LGB vets would be established as a Minority Group by the VA.  Evidently this is a huge step which will require an act of Congress.  But he did jokingly refer to the Special Emphasis Group as a “baby step” in that direction.  So, it appears that the VA is moving in the right direction. 

It should be noted that Transgender people are still not technically allowed to serve in the US military, but this policy is rapidly changing with a number of Transgender service members now serving openly on active duty.  AVER expects this policy to change in the near future.  When this happens we will push for “gender identity” to be added to the MEO policy.  Indeed, we join other LGBT service member and veteran groups in pushing for that modification.  The VA already has a good program concerning outreach, respect, and targeted treatment programs for Transgender veterans.  AVER will work for the day when the VA establishes an official Minority Group for LGB and T veterans.

2015 GayMilitarySignal