Being gay at the VA is more than just okay. It’s celebrated.

Jonathan Kaupanger
August 30, 2018 - 2:42 pm

Photo by Dr. Tiffany Lang-Altman

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The military has a history of policies that encourage discrimination and humiliation for LGBT individuals.  The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell wasn’t that long ago and the ban on transgender service is still unresolved.  Often, LGBTQ veterans view healthcare at VA as an extension of military service.

There’s a new grassroots effort at the agency to fix this problem.

“Serving All Who Served,” is a pilot health education program for veterans who may feel underserved by VA.  “It’s really focused on empowering the veteran to learn what they might be at increased risk for and how to navigate the VA,” says Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Tiffany Lange-Altman.  Lange-Altman is also the LGBT Veteran Care Coordinator at the Hampton VA Medical Center. 

Lange-Altman and fellow clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle M. Hilgeman are in Washington, D.C. sharing their “Serving All Who Served” program at the Veterans Health Administration’s Innovation Experience.  This is where healthcare providers from different medical centers get together and share ideas that work at their facility.  Many of VA’s popular programs started small at a medical center. 

“Sometimes small ideas grow legs and take off quickly,” says Dr. Hilgeman.  In Alabama, at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, Hilgeman co-chairs the  LGBT Special Emphasis Program.  According to Hilgeman, LGBTQ services in Alabama are somewhat invisible.  This was brought to her attention by an intern who had an interest in transgender healthcare.  They looked around and noticed that there simply wasn’t any detectable patient services for LGBTQ veterans. 

“All of the policies were in place,” says Hilgeman.  “Everything was there on that side, but in terms of the patients walking through the door – we didn’t have any rainbows.  We didn’t have any services that could be accessed.”

“At the VA, we can only serve those who are willing to walk through our doors,” says Lange-Altman who’s been working to resolve this problem for about two years now.  So at Hampton, she started focusing on identifying LGBT friendly providers.  It was a simple beginning a magnet with a rainbow on it.  It was her way of saying to LGBTQ veterans that they are welcomed and that they matter.

And then came the outreach, which was a struggle at first.  They went to the local Pride Festival and the first year 250 people stopped by their booth.  But the word was out.  The following year, 430 people stopped by and some were crying.  Lange-Altman recalls one veteran saying, “I can’t believe this is at the VA!  I wasn’t going to go there, I was going to pay out of pocket.”  Another veteran told her about their 20 years of honorable service, but never even considered going to the VA because they didn’t think that their LGBTQ identity would be acknowledged, let alone celebrated.

Back in D.C. at VA’s Innovations meeting, the response to Hilgeman and Lange-Altman’s program has been very positive.  VA staff from around the country expressed interest in bringing Serving All Who Served to their medical centers. 

“There are amazing things happening down that rainbow lane at VA,” says Lange-Altman.  “Knowing that we’re here, that there are people that really do want to figure out how to take care of our LGBT veterans in a way they deserve.”

If you want more information on Serving All Who Served, you can contact the LGBT Veteran Care Coordinator at your local medical center.  Or check here for the VA's Patient Care Services for LGBTQ.

            Contact us about this article or share your story at gethelp@connectingvets.com