The official motto for the Department of Veterans Affairs, adopted in 1960, comes from the close of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, widely considered one of the greatest speeches in American history: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." The Civil War was in its final days, and Lincoln was attempting to heal the wounds of a reunited nation, seen and unseen. It set the tone for one of the few enduring issues on which the vast majority of Americans are in total agreement: ensuring service members and their families receive care and respect.
According to Gallup, 78 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, more than twice the approval of any other American institution, a place of honor it has held for the past two decades. Few things unite the country in opinion as much as the effort to reform the VA and provide compassionate and competent care for veterans. And so, as a transgender veteran, I am heartbroken that for as much reverence and awe that politicians and citizens alike afford to my service in uniform, my status as a transgender person seems to painfully supersede that service.
For decades, the VA has excluded coverage of medically necessary surgical procedures to treat gender dysphoria, a medical term describing the overwhelming stress and anxiety experienced by transgender persons who feel incongruent in how our gender identity aligns with our presentation and the way the world perceives us based on that presentation.
The VA’s exclusion of many forms of transition-related health care flies in the face of every major medical authority; even the agency acknowledged that “recent medical research shows that gender dysphoria is a serious condition that has had severe medical consequences for certain patients if transition-related surgeries and procedures are not provided.” This led to a proposed rule change in early 2016.
However, after the change in administration, the VA failed to act and maintained the policy of exclusion.
This is, of course, not the first time Donald Trump and Mike Pence have attacked transgender people serving their country. After the president tweeted his impulsive ban on transgender troops, people of all political beliefs and backgrounds spoke out against that unconstitutional policy.
Now we are called to protect transgender veterans, but the window is quickly closing on our ability to oppose this discriminatory and dangerous rule. Public comments in opposition to maintaining a ban on transition-related care are due on Friday. Please take a few moments to submit one.
In our current political climate, in which so many issues seem to prompt contentious and often hateful debate, one principle we should all be able to rally behind is that all veterans, regardless of who they are, should be able to receive quality health care from a grateful nation they so honorably served.
That singular principle — honoring service — is most evident in how we acknowledge the service and sacrifice of those buried in Arlington National Cemetery. For three years, I served in the unit that laid to rest service members, veterans, and their loved ones. I cannot tell you if those caskets belonged to people of any particular gender or race, or whether the person was gay or straight, transgender, or cisgender. The most obvious feature of that final resting place is the uniformity and equality on display: all the same headstones in formation, all the same flag-draped caskets brought into eternity.
We didn’t need to know if the people in the caskets we carried were transgender; we knew all we needed to know: They served with honor.
There is more at stake with this proposed rule than the health care and quality of life of transgender veterans, though that should be enough. This is also about the soul of our country, so burdened by a declining faith in our institutions, in our leaders, in the belief that sacrifice in America is honored with the promise of doing our best to ensure it was worthwhile.
Transgender veterans have already paid our dues. It is time the Department of Veterans Affairs embody this nation’s sacred obligation by honoring that.
CHARLOTTE CLYMER is a veteran, a transgender activist, and the Human Rights Campaign's press secretary for rapid response.