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Serving While LGBTQ

“What are some of the biggest challenges for LGBTQ service members and veterans right now?” That was the question of the evening on January 18 when NYLAG hosted Serving While LGBTQ, a panel discussion on issues affecting LGBTQ servicemembers and veterans.

Bringing together a distinguished panel of experts, the discussion zeroed in on the unique challenges in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights in the military. Panelists included Sasha Buchert, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal; Shannon Price Minter, Legal Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Sue Fulton, Executive Director of Women in the Service Change Initiative and former President of SPART*A; Kristen Rouse, Founding Director at NYC Veterans Alliance; and moderator Michael Wishnie, the William O. Douglas Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School. The event was co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and Debevoise & Plimpton.

Panelists spoke about the urgency of fighting to ensure that transgender Americans have the right to serve openly in the U.S. military and to receive the same medical benefits as all servicemembers.

Fulton, a West Point graduate and veteran, remembered how servicemembers and veterans reacted last July when President Trump tweeted that transgender people were banned from the U.S. military. Like a family, they rallied together and reached out to their transgender comrades, showing solidarity in a time of uncertainty.

Shannon Minter, one of the lead attorneys fighting to stop the administration’s transgender military ban, spoke about recent developments in court. Despite the Department of Justice’s interim policy guidance for processing transgender applicantsfor military service, issued in December, the case is ongoing. “We’re not out of the woods,” Minter said.

In addition to legal protections, the panelists also talked about the need to dispel myths about the cost and necessity of gender-transition related medications and surgeries. Buchert said that the American Medical Association and most medical experts agree that such treatments are medically necessary. And she cited a 2016 Rand Corporation study that found that the cost of care for transgender servicemembers is a small fraction of the total cost of health care in the military.

“The issue of cost is false. The Rand study found that the government is spending more on Viagra than on all of the care for transgender servicemembers. At the same time medicalizing trans people is wrong. It is unfair to single out a specific population for their medical needs.”

As an LGBTQ veteran, Fulton addressed the need to change harmful attitudes toward gender within the military. “My biggest issue isn’t being gay. It’s being a woman.” She described the military as among the most gendered environments in the U.S., one that fosters a masculine culture that can be damaging to women and non-binary people.

Rouse, who served in the military for 17 years under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, spoke about the impact that can be made at the local level. Last year, the New York City Veterans Alliance helped advocate for a law to protect veterans and servicemembers from discrimination in housing, employment, and places of public accommodation. The law, which took effect late last year, will provide the strongest local-level protection against discrimination in the nation.

Not everyone is in a position to directly make change happen, but if you’re passionate about LGBTQ rights, the panelists had advice for how you can get involved. “Do what’s in front of you,” said Fulton, who describes herself as a “late in life activist.” If you don’t have time to tackle every issue, pick the issue you care about most and start there. Buchert’s advice was simple: “Call your congress members. Talk about transgender issues. It makes a difference.”

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