Advocates are criticizing Veterans Affairs leaders for what they say is a lackluster response to a growing number of anti-LGBTQ incidents within the department, in contrast to administration rhetoric promising to make the agency more welcoming to all veterans.
Earlier this week, staffers at the Portland VA Medical Center in Washington found a flier posted in a public elevator mocking department diversity efforts, claiming that leaders only want to help veterans who are “gay or at least members of one of the approved minority groups promoted endlessly in the name of eliminating racial divisions.”
Signs stating “we serve all who serve” were also torn down in parts of the hospital, and handouts with suicide prevention resources specific to LGBTQ veterans were thrown into the trash.
In a statement to staff on Wednesday, VISN 20 Network Director Teresa Boyd said she was “saddened” by the incidents and that VA police are looking into the matter.
“We can do better,” Boyd wrote. “We owe it to ourselves and our VA family. To be clear, I have zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination and vandalism in our workplace.”
The Portland problems come just a few days after a trio of VA psychologists penned an editorial in The Hill attacking transgender-friendly policies at the department as discriminatory.
“The VA’s current policy is based on premises we believe are contradictory, anti-female and unconstitutional,” they wrote. “It appears to be motivated by politics and fickle media narratives rather than by sound clinical practice.”
Last week, the Transgender American Veterans Association filed a lawsuit against the department for its years-long delay in providing gender confirmation surgery at VA facilities, a plan first announced by department leaders in June 2021. TAVA officials criticized VA leadership for a lack of concern about damage caused by the unnecessary wait.
“We’re tired of empty promises. We need care,” Rebekka Eshler, president of TAVA, said in a statement.
Lindsay Church, executive director and founder of Minority Veterans of America, said a number of employees have reported concerns to MVA about a lack of support in cases of abuse and harassment. The latest incidents “only serve to exacerbate the fears of LGBTQ+ patients and staff” within VA.
“The Secretary of Veterans Affairs must take immediate action to ensure that health care settings remain free of discrimination and fully supportive of all veterans — an area where the department is currently falling short,” Church said.
In a statement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said that the department “has zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind, and we have moved to aggressively investigate these incidents and provide support to those impacted.”
“We are fully committed to ensuring a harassment-free environment for all public servants at VA and the veterans we serve,” Hayes said. “It’s our job to serve LGTBQ+ veterans — and all veterans — and make sure they feel safe and welcome every time they come to VA. We will never settle for anything less.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough was asked about the concerns of LGBTQ staffers. He replied that it is his responsibility to create an environment “where our workforce feels valued and safe,” and added that officials are still working to ensure that is the case across the department.
In addition to the internal response, investigators from VA’s Office of Inspector General and Federal Bureau of Investigation are looking into the matter, department officials said.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.