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Denis McDonough

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on March 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Advocates Cheer VA Move to Offer Trans Vets Gender Confirmation Surgery

"Every veteran deserves to have access to the health care that they need, and the VA is working to make sure that includes transgender veterans as well."

Brett Wilkins

Civil rights advocates on Saturday welcomed an announcement from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough that the agency will move to offer gender confirmation surgery to transgender veterans.

"This... will ensure we don't turn our backs on transgender veterans who served our country when they need lifesaving medically necessary health care."
—Sasha Buchert, Lambda Legal

Vowing to overcome a "dark history" of discrimination against LGBTQ+ service members, McDonough said at a Pride event in Orlando, Florida Saturday "that we are taking the first necessary steps to expand VA's care to include gender confirmation surgery, thus allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with [the] VA by their side."

"This process will require changing VA's regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety of transgender veterans," McDonough continued. "There are several steps to take, which will take time."

"But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet [the] VA's rigorous standards for quality health care," he added. "This time will allow [the] VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time, and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it."

McDonough noted that "due in part to minority stress, LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community, but they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination."

A VA spokesperson told the Washington Post that implementing the new policy will take two years.

The agency's shift stands in stark contrast with the discriminatory exclusion of transgender service members during the Trump administration. In March, the Defense Department announced it would end the Trump-era ban and revive an Obama administration policy which, for the first time in the United States, allowed transgender people to serve openly in the armed forces, "provided all appropriate standards are met." 

Civil rights groups welcomed McDonough's announcement.

Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), said in a statement that "everyone should have access to the health care they need to live healthy, happy lives. We know that this is just the beginning of a long process, but it's another step in the Biden administration's effort to fight discrimination against transgender people, including our transgender veterans."

"Every veteran deserves to have access to the health care that they need, and the VA is working to make sure that includes transgender veterans as well," Keisling added.

The NCTE estimates there are over 134,000 transgender U.S. military veterans and more than 15,000 active-duty trans troops.

President Joe Biden has reversed several Trump-era civil rights rollbacks and expanded sexual minorities' rights, starting with a Day One executive order aimed at combating and preventing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.

This was followed by a February announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that it would enforce the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; a March memo (pdf) from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division asserting that Title IX applies to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination; the May reversal of the Trump administration's elimination of nondiscrimination protections for transgender and nonbinary people in federally funded healthcare services; and new Department of Education guidance issued Wednesday asserting that Title IX bans discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sasha Buchert, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, said that "we applaud Secretary McDonough's commitment to eliminate the VA's outdated categorical exclusion of transition-related surgical care for transgender veterans."

"This important update to the VA's health plan will provide continuity of care for transgender service members and will ensure we don't turn our backs on transgender veterans who served our country when they need lifesaving medically necessary health care," Buchert continued.

"While we recognize the importance of moving forward methodically, we urge the VA to recognize in this process the needs of transgender veterans who have already waited too long for the health care they deserve," Buchert added.

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