According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 12-million veterans now over the age of 65, having served in global conflicts as far back as World War II. While they may not have been “out” during their years of service, we can be quite sure that many of these older vets identify as LGBT.
Veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities experience a wide range of physical and mental-health needs resulting from their military service. Many of these challenges are particularly pronounced for LGBT veterans due to experiences of discrimination and stigma. The Veterans Health Administration suggests that LGBT veterans experience a lower overall health status than other veterans, encountering even higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and some cancers. LGBT veterans are also less likely than other veterans to seek routine and preventative health care.
While many of these disparities persist, the services available to LGBT veterans have undoubtedly improved in the past decade. In Philadelphia, the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center has taken significant steps toward creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment for LGBT people. An LGBT Inclusion Initiative, a national project developed by the Veterans Administration, aims to improve the VA’s LGBT cultural competency.
The LGBT Inclusion Initiative has targeted projects such as advocating for unisex bathrooms, increasing the representation of LGBT people in the VA’s promotional materials and adjusting the language used during intake processes to be more LGBT-inclusive. “We want to be sure we are creating an inclusive environment, that we are raising awareness about the kinds of discrimination experienced by LGBT people and that we can be a safe place for veterans to get high-quality health care,” stated Dr. Joan Ryan, the coordinator of the LGBT Inclusion Initiative at the Crescenz VA Medical Center.
Ryan views continuing to educate staff and providers as a critical step in ensuring culturally sensitive services for LGBT vets. She highlights training modules available for primary and specialty-care providers at the VA that “help them ask the appropriate questions to get at the medical needs of this population.” Additional trainings have focused on how to be an ally to LGBT people and raise visibility for the needs of these communities. Ryan said many VA staffers have hung rainbow ribbons on their office doors or wearing them as pins as a way to identify themselves as allies.
This work has not gone unnoticed by LGBT veterans in Greater Philadelphia. Keith Ockimey, a 52-year-old gay man, praised the improvement in the services available to LGBT veterans. Ockimey served in the Army for 23 years and felt the sting of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
“In the beginning it was challenging,” he said. “There was a lot of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ There was a lot of ostracization. I suffered through it for 23 years.”
Despite the policy, Ockimey was open about his sexual orientation to VA providers since first accessing services in 1993. He noted there has been a palpable difference in the VA’s LGBT acceptance.
“You can actually see the difference. You can see a lot of people who care about your well being,” he said.
Ockimey pointed to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 as a significant shift in the way that LGBT veterans have been able to access services.
Now in his 50s, Ockimey is confident in the level of care he will receive as he gets older.
“As I grow older, different things happen to me physically and mentally. As I combat those problems, I’ve gotten nothing but professionalism from the staff here.”
With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the number of LGBT veterans relying on the VA is increasingly rapidly. The VA’s ability to continue to progress toward even greater LGBT acceptance will be essential in ensuring that these veterans are able to access the level of care they need and deserve.