T ransgender A merican
V eterans A ssociation
The History of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA)
The organization started when Angela Brightfeather and Monica Helms joined the Yahoo Group list by the name of TSVeterans. This group was formed specifically to discuss the various issues facing transsexual veterans who have to deal with the VA medical facilities and for other health-related issues. The people on the group talked about several things and at one time, everyone began talking about their experiences with different VA facilities across the country. Some on the list had great experiences, while others elsewhere had terrible ones.
Out of all the stories told on the list, the one that seemed to strike a chord with Brightfeather and Helms was the one from a trans man by the name of Alex Fox. Fox went to the Washington DC VA facility to get help, but when they found out he was trans, they refused to provide him with any service. He then drove sixty miles north to the VA facility in Baltimore and they treated him great.
Alex’s story moved Brightfeather and Helms. They decided something had to be done about this. Both served on National Transgender Advocacy Coalition’s Activism Committee and they figured the Committee could work on this issue. However, after seeing the extent of the problem facing transsexual veterans, they felt that it should have its own committee in NTAC to work on the problem.
The basis of the problem came from a Public Law that the VA medical facilities interpret in different ways, causing inconsistency across the country when it comes to transsexual veterans. Here is that Public Law (PL) 104-262. Please note the vague terminology at the end of paragraph two.
Public Law (PL) 104-262,
Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996
Public Law (PL) 104-262, Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, “calls for VA to furnish hospital care and medical services that are defied as ‘needed’. VA defines ‘needed’ as care or services that will promote, preserve, and restore health. This includes a treatment, procedure, supply or service.” Some health care services “that will not normally be covered include abortion, membership in health clubs or spas for rehabilitation, special private duty nursing and gender alteration.”
Department of Veterans Affairs M-2, Part XIV, Veterans Health Administration, Washington, DC 20420 November 17, 1993.
a. Chapter 11: Gender Reorientation (Sex Change). It is VA policy that transsexual surgery will not be performed in VA medical centers or under VA auspices. Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will not carry out any process or procedure involving genital identity revision.
Federal Register: November 1, 1996 (Volume 61, Number 213)] [Proposed Rules]
Sec. 17.270 General Provisions.
(a) CHAMPVA is the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 1713, VA is authorized to provide medical care in the same or similar manner and subject to the same or similar limitations as medical care furnished to certain dependents and survivors of active duty and retired members of the Armed Forces.
Federal Register / Vol. 64, No 193 / October 6, 1999 Paragraph 17.38 Medical Benefits Package (c) (4) was added to deny treatment for “Gender alterations.”
Sec. 17.272 Benefits Limitations/Exclusions.
The following are specifically excluded from program (23) Services and supplies related to transsexualism or other similar conditions such as gender dysphoria (including, but not limited to, intersex surgery and psychotherapy, except for ambiguous genitalia which was documented to be present at birth).
The real problem does not lay in the vague terms like “genital identity revision” and “gender alteration,” but in the interpretation of this law at each individual VA facility. Some facilities look at this law and think, “This means we cannot do sex change operations or pay for them, but we can do everything else for the transsexual veteran.” Other facilities – like the one in DC at the time Fox went there – use the law as a blanket excuse not to treat a transsexual veteran for anything. Most facilities fall somewhere in the middle, providing everything to pre-op transsexuals except psychotherapy and hormones. Most post-op transsexuals will receive everything from the VA. The problem is that many transsexual veterans needing the VA for their medical issues are not in a position to afford Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and they cannot afford to buy hormones at full price. They are not receiving treatment that would help them progress.
Because of the extent of this problem, Brightfeather and Helms convinced the other board members of NTAC to allow them to form a VA Committee so they could support of the veterans. However, many trans veterans got upset with them, because they felt that if NTAC began talking to Congress people and VA people, they could end the good service some were already getting from the VA. The concerns they voiced of not causing any transsexual veterans from losing good service became a centerpiece of the advocacy in that area for the NTAC VA Committee. Robyn Walters, the Moderator if the TSVeterans Yahoo Group helped in supporting the efforts of Brightfeather and Helms when it came to this issue.
NTAC’s VA Committee existed for eighteen months, with Helms as the Chair and Walters as the Vice-Chair. They spent the time gathering information and statistics on all the issues facing transgender veterans and ways to combat these problems without affecting the good services some TG veterans had. When Human Rights Campaign (HRC,) Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) all got together to promote their “Profiles in Courage” program, designed to record the military experiences of GLBT veterans, NTAC’s VA Committee came out in support of it. Since they were just a committee in an organization and not a full-fledged organization, the other three national groups would not list them as a supporter.
As time went on, it became more and more apparent that the scope of the issues facing transgender veterans would soon overwhelm a mere committee. On January 12, 2003, Helms resigned from the NTAC Board and formed the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA.) It started off, like NTAC, as a Yahoo Group. Eventually Brightfeather and Walters joined, as well as many of the community’s good activists.
The formation of TAVA allowed a group of transgender activists specifically to concentrate on the larger VA issues and to create a vehicle where more resources could be used to focus on those issues. TAVA also felt a need to include the transgender people still serving in the military, because if any of them ran into trouble, they would have an organization to turn to in providing them some help.
Less than one month after TAVA opened its “doors,” Janice Josephine Carney contacted the Library of Congress and set TAVA up as a national supporter of their Veterans History Project. This project, which HRC, SLDN and AVER based their Profiles in Courage program on, recording the military experiences of all veterans, specifically the WWII veterans. The Library of Congress said that 1500 WWII veterans die each day and most will have their contributions to our freedoms die with them. The Library of Congress has done a wonderful job of preserving their stories and TAVA wanted to make sure the stories of transgender veterans would be preserved as well. Carney has made sure some transgender veterans would be included in this project.
Over the next six months, TAVA did all the necessary things an organization needed to do to get themselves started. They wrote a mission statement, goals, vision statement, by-laws, and other important organizational documents. They had a web site created, designed logos, emblems, and put together all the things necessary to set them apart from everyone else. They elected officers and other board members. The members elected Helms as the President.
In September 2003, Brightfeather and Helms began a discussion over drinks at the bar in the hotel where the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) took place. Brightfeather had been elected as TAVA’s Special Projects Director and she brought up the idea that she and Helms had kicked around for the last three years. In a sweat lodge in the mountains of North Carolina, Brightfeather had a vision of transgender veterans meeting at the Vietnam Memorial and all the healing that would take place there. She told a group of veterans at SCC that TAVA should sponsor her idea and in doing so, it became the first ever Transgender Veterans March to the Wall. They also decided they would lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The date was set for the March for May 1, 2004.
For the next three months, Helms and Brightfeather discussed this idea with the TAVA Board members only. They learned from the disastrous attempt by others who tried to plan a Transgender March on Washington. A group of people had this great idea, but before settling on anything, they revealed their intentions to the entire transgender community and proceeded to be torn up one side and down the other. Many in the community came up with all the reasons it would fail. Since the planners had nothing set in stone, they could not counter those complaints. Helms and Brightfeather knew that if we were to have a successful event, they would need to have practically everything in place before they could let the general public know. This included planning on how to respond to the various complaints that would surface.
Over the next several months, TAVA concentrated all their time and efforts toward making this historical event happen. They wrote to the appropriate people to get permission to lay the wreath at the time they requested, raise funds, and make all the arrangements with hotel, bus service, and flower shop. Brightfeather left no stone unturned. For this event, she shifted into her drill sergeant mode. It proved to be the best thing for TAVA.
Three things happened before the March that involved TAVA. On the first week of October 2003, the SLDN had their annual “End the Witch Hunts” Dinner to raise funds to help GLBT veterans caught up in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law. Helms decided to represent TAVA for the first time at this dinner. This proved to be a wise move, because she made several new contacts for TAVA and got to meet PFC Barry Winchell’s mother for the first time.
Another thing happened in December of 2003 when Helms went back to DC to check out the various places they planned on visiting during their March. She stayed long enough to speak with some people involved in the House VA Committee. For the first time since TAVA’s existence, someone spoke with people in Congress on transgender veteran’s issues. Helms met one woman who worked as a legislative aide to a high-ranking Congressman on the House VA Committee, but she did not go alone that day. Mara Kiesling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) had set up the appointments and came with her on the visits.
Kiesling started NCTE around the very time TAVA began, with the purpose of providing the eyes, ears and voice of the transgender community in DC. She also helped individuals and organizations by arranging meetings and coordinating visits to Congressional offices. NCTE has proven to be a very valuable ally to TAVA’s work.
Helms and Kiesling sat down with the legislative aide and gave her all the information on how devastating the VA policy is toward transsexual veterans. When the legislative aide heard the stories, she looked surprised and appalled. She then told them that if any transgender veterans needed help, to call her. Sadly, she no longer works there. However, she did get a chance to help a few transgender veterans before she left. There is a hope that because the Democrats have become the majority in Congress during the elections of 2006, that TAVA will have a chance to accomplish some of its goals.
The third item has to do with an organizational first. On March 9, 2004, TAVA became incorporated in the State of California. This was the first step toward acquiring their 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status.
On May 1, 2004, the Transgender American Veterans Association had its first scheduled event as an organization. Fifty people, most of them veterans, gathered in DC to attend the first Transgender Veterans March to the Wall. Brightfeather took charge and had everything running smoothly. That morning, the attendees filled a bus to head to the Wall. In front of them drove Sgt. Brett Parsons, the DC Metro PD’s GLBT Liaison, with his lights flashing. He provided the TAVA bus with a police escort, even stopping a couple of times to direct traffic. The man became an instant hero to TAVA.
That day, TAVA not only made Transgender History, but also made American History. The night before the March, they drew names of four people who would get the privilege to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, doing what no other transgender veterans have ever done. Just before three in the afternoon, the team of four, led by Stephanie Heck, TAVA’s Vice President, gathered at the Tomb’s guardroom to prepare for the ceremony. While there, one of the guards said he could not find the wreath, which sent the team into a panic. The Master Sgt. of the Guard did not appreciate the other guard’s lack of respect toward the TAVA members and ordered him to find the wreath. He had seen the wreath earlier, so he knew the guard had not look very carefully in the back. When the guard went back and looked for the second time, the wreath miraculously appeared.
Then, the Master Sgt of the Guard asked if the organization should be announced as “TAVA,” which is what appeared on the wreath, or the “Transgender American Veterans Association.” Heck asked him to announce the entire name. When the time came, they stepped out onto the top of the steps and the Master Sgt of the Guards marched down the stairs and faced the crowd. “This wreath is being presented by the Transgender American Veterans Association.” Every GLBT person in the crowd cried, even some of those who have been an activist for transgender rights for the last few decades.
The entire event went off without a hitch, with the exception of the wreath incident. Thanks to “Drill Sgt.” Brightfeather, they had one of the most well organized events in the transgender community’s history, as per several outside observers. They put on the same event in May of 2005, but only half the people showed up. In order for TAVA to draw in more people next time, they will have to offer more then just a visit to DC.
On July 20, 2005, TAVA received their 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status from the IRS, allowing them to apply for grants and large donations. Their goal of ensuring transgender veterans are treated equally in the VA still drives their efforts, but now they have access to more assets to work with.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, TAVA members saw transgender people being treated badly by relief organizations. TAVA did what they could by donating $500 to a fund set up to specifically to help GLBT victims of Katrina. Move by this effort, one of their members donated another $1000 to the same effort. This showed TAVA that in times of emergencies, they could be there to help. It became one of the important centerpieces when TAVA began forming chapters in other states.
TAVA continues to grow and expand into areas that will help them extend their influence and provide them with more exposure. In 2005, TAVA began forming chapters across the country, thanks to Ann Marie Knittel, TAVA’s National Chapters Director and BEAR Rodgers, the National Assistant Chapters Director. A chapter in Madison, WI became the first official chapter in March of 2006 and ones in Knoxville, TN and Worcester, MA officially became chapters in December of 2006. There are over 20 more locations across the country that are on the verge of forming chapters as well. This has given TAVA growing pains, challenging them to find more ways to better serve the members while still focusing on reaching the organization’s goals.
Still a young organization, TAVA has become a respected and valued group in the transgender community and has proven its value in the rest of the queer community across the country. They stand beside SLDN and AVER in their fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and they stand with national transgender organizations when there are efforts to help advance equal rights for transgender people. There are more things TAVA will face, but since they are run by veterans of the US military, they will survive and move forward.