VA Secretary directs review of department policies to ensure LGBTQ inclusion, equality

Denis McDonough, U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) nominee for U.S. President Joe Biden, speaks during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on January 27, 2021 in Washington, D.C. As Barack Obama’s chief of staff, McDonough oversaw the VAs overhaul in response to its 2014 wait-time scandal and previously served as a deputy national security adviser.
Denis McDonough, U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) nominee for U.S. President Joe Biden, speaks during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on January 27, 2021 in Washington, D.C. As Barack Obama’s chief of staff, McDonough oversaw the VAs overhaul in response to its 2014 wait-time scandal and previously served as a deputy national security adviser. Photo credit Photo Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Getty Images

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced plans for a departmentwide review of policies and practices to ensure LGBTQ veterans, families, staff and others are equally included and cared for.

In a memo sent to VA leaders, staff and veteran service organizations Tuesday, McDonough said the department would welcome all veteran, family, caregiver and survivor beneficiaries "inclusive of diverse gender identities and sexual orientation" and that VA would provide a safe and equitable environment for all those it serves.

McDonough specifically called for a VA-wide policy review, including development of a plan to eliminate obstacles to equity and inclusion for LGBTQ veterans, staff and others the department serves.

"Every person at VA, whether a customer or member of VA’s workforce, should be treated with respect and dignity," McDonough said in the memo. "Our success as a team — our ability to deliver world-class care for our veterans — depends on our respect for our fellow VA employees and the veterans we serve and is critical to everything we do."

In his first press briefing as secretary on Tuesday, McDonough said the review should be complete by March 30.

McDonough's review follows President Joe Biden's recent executive orders overturning the Trump administration's trangender military ban and another signed Feb. 20 aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

VA already provides some LGBTQ-specific care and services for veterans, but currently, gender affirmation care and services, including gender affirmation surgery, are excluded from the medical benefits package.

McDonough's memo ordered an assessment of the steps necessary to eliminate the exclusion and assess official requirements, funding, staffing, technology and other resources "required to provide all medically necessary services" to those veterans.

McDonough's memo called for including LGBTQ veterans and staff in developing furutre policies and determining what barriers they face "in accessing the full range of VA care, benefits and services."

Employee training is among McDonough's priorities for the review, including ensuring that VA staff are all trained "on inclusive, respectful and welcoming interaction with LGBTQ beneficiaries." The new secretary said he also wants the department to develop a plan to enhance its data and information systems to allow veterans, staff and others to "independently and securely self-identify and be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns."

Veteran service organizations Disabled American Veterans and Minority Veterans of America were swift to voice support for McDonough's move.

"Every veteran who has honorably served this nation is entitled to safe, welcoming and dignified care," said Butch Whitehead, DAV national commander. "We are pleased to see Secretary McDonough initiating these important steps and taking a proactive approach to reform the culture within VA to help promote inclusiveness and equity in care across the organization."

Minority Veterans of America Executive Director Lindsay Church called McDonough's announcement long overdue but welcome news," building on the commitment the Biden administration made to LGBTQ service members and veterans.

"This is especially impactful for trans veterans who have long been denied access to lifesaving gender affirmation surgeries due to VA’s long-held ban,” Church said, but added there is still more work to be done.

"We must continue to work towards ending discriminatory practices at VA and establish strong, system-wide plans to make VA a welcoming space where all veterans, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation, can access the full range of VA care, free from all barriers."

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.