T ransgender A merican
V eterans A ssociation
Transgender veterans seek parity in VA services
By DENNIS CAMIRE
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON - A veterans group setting up local chapters in a handful of states says the government is treating some vets unfairly.
The Transgender American Veterans Association, whose members include transsexuals to those whose gender was ambiguous at birth to cross-dressers, says transgender veterans run into problems dealing with Veterans Affairs Department medical centers and clinics, especially when seeking psychiatric counseling and hormone treatments.
"We were seeing individuals being denied services," said Monica Helms, the group's president and a former Navy submariner. "Basically, what we want to get is everything other veterans can get, regardless of what the reason is."
Helms, 55, of Atlanta, said the 250-member association started in response to inconsistencies in how VA regulations are carried out across the country, ignorance among some doctors of the physical and psychological needs of transgender patients and, in some cases, basic discrimination against vets not part of the mainstream.
Most problems occur when transgender veterans who have not had surgery are denied services, such as hormone treatment and psychotherapy, said Helms, who lives as a woman but has not had surgery.
Medical professionals require that, before undergoing sex reassignment surgery, men and women must undergo psychotherapy, live as the gender they want to become and undergo hormone treatments.
But the VA has a written policy that the department's medical institutions will not carry out any process or procedure involving genital identity revision, said Terry Jemison, spokesman for the VA.
"Counseling and hormones for someone who has undergone gender reassignment, through private arrangements, are appropriate services if clinically indicated," Jemison said.
But preoperative services are not. Federal law states that "gender alteration" is among VA health care services that are not normally covered.
Helms said separating gender identity from other psychological issues a vet may face is impossible and causes confusion among VA health care practitioners across the country.
"How do you give psychotherapy to somebody if they have post-traumatic stress disorder without including their gender identity issues?" Helms said. "You can't pull threads out of an individual's psychological makeup in order to say we will work on this but we're not going to work on that."
As far as hormone treatments, the VA supplies them to other veterans for medical reasons, Helms said.
"We would like to get hormonal treatment for our medical reasons," she said.
Helms also said some VA hospitals and clinics refuse to provide any medical services regardless of whatever the medical reason is.
"That is pretty rare, but there are facilities out there that we have heard of that do that," said Helms, who served in the Navy from 1970 to 1978 and has two sons, including one who's a Marine in Iraq.
Education is the focal point of the chapters, teaching VA doctors and staff that transgender veterans are people, too, said Bear Rodgers, 40, a disabled vet in Knoxville who is working to start a Tennessee chapter.
"When we signed on (to the military), we were promised medical coverage and some of us aren't getting it because we're transgender," Rodgers said. "We're not getting treatment for anything because the doctors are so afraid of stepping over the line."
Rodgers, whose bullet wounds from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and a later job in law enforcement left him in a wheelchair, said his chapter, which has eight active members, has worked with the VA in Tennessee to get some help for transgender veterans.
His chapter still lacks a state charter but plans to have the filing fee for it by December, said Rodgers who served as a woman officer in the Army's military police from 1986 to 1992 before starting hormones and surgery in the late 1990s to become a man.
The association's goal is to create chapters in each state. The first opened in Wisconsin this spring, said Ann Marie Knittel, director of the group's chapters. In about 15 other states, groups also are working to set up chapters, Knittel said.
No one seems to know the number of transgender vets among the almost 25 million veterans in the country. Even among the general population, no hard numbers are available, said Taryann M. Witten, executive director of the TranScience Research Institute in Richmond, Va. The institute is conducting a study on transgender veterans and service members for the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Witten said that among the general population, the estimates range from one in 10,000 to one in 100,000 people who are male to female. The estimate for female to male go from one in 100,000 to one in 300,000.
"We actually think it's more than that," said Witten, also a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
So far, the transgender veterans group isn't widely known even among other veterans' organizations.
Representatives from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association of America and the Vietnam Veterans Association all said they haven't heard of the Transgender American Veterans Association.
It's that lack of recognition, among other veterans and those who serve them, that helps drive the association to grow.
Said Helms: "We feel we are veterans first and just happen to be transgender," she said. "The important part of our life is being a veteran because we got to serve our country and we served it proudly."
Contact Dennis Camire at email@example.com