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How will Supreme Court rule on marriage?

Parsing statements, records for hints as to how justices will decide DOMA, Prop 8 cases

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Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are expected to issue rulings on the Prop 8 and DOMA cases in June. (Photo public domain)

The nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court are expected to reach a decision by the end of June in two high-profile LGBT rights cases on which they heard oral arguments last week challenging California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The justices could reach any number of decisions on either or both of the cases — upholding the anti-gay measures, dismissing the cases for lack of standing or jurisdiction, striking down Prop 8 and DOMA on grounds they violate the rights of same-sex couples under the U.S. Constitution — or even issuing a national ruling in favor of marriage equality.

Predicting how they might rule is tricky. But several of the justices made statements and asked questions during the oral arguments that offered some hints. Perhaps more significantly, many of them have a record of ruling in gay rights cases that might indicate their leanings on marriage. The Washington Blade has compiled profiles of the justices to assess how they might rule in the two marriage cases before them.

In addition to examining their comments during the arguments, the Blade has looked at how they ruled in other high-profile gay rights cases. One is the 1996 case of Romer v. Evans in which the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2, which would have prohibited municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBT people. Another is the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas in which the Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws.

The Blade also looked at the court ruling in the 2010 case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In that case, the court upheld the Hastings College of Law’s non-discrimination policy against a challenge from Hastings Christian Fellowship, which sought to overturn the policy to maintain its status as an official school group while prohibiting LGBT people from holding positions as officers.

John Roberts, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Chief Justice John Roberts (Photo public domain)

1. Chief Justice John Roberts

The chief justice of the Supreme Court seemed skeptical during oral arguments that Prop 8 and DOMA should be struck down as unconstitutional. He also seemed dismissive of the notion that LGBT people lack political power.

In an exchange with attorney Robbie Kaplan, Chief Justice John Roberts disputed that gay people lack political power — a characteristic that the court has considered in weighing whether a group should be considered a suspect class.

“As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case,” Roberts said.

The chief justice was likely referring to the trend of U.S. senators announcing their support for marriage equality, which just this week added Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). When Kaplan pointed out that no group has been subject to referenda in recent years like gay people, Roberts seemed unmoved.

“You just referred to a sea change in people’s understandings and values from 1996, when DOMA was enacted, and I’m just trying to see where that comes from, if not from the political effectiveness of groups on your side,” Roberts said.

Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, hasn’t ruled on many gay rights cases during his time on the bench. Still, Roberts ruled as part of the dissent that deemed exclusion of LGBT students was acceptable in the Christian Legal Society case.

On the other hand, Roberts in 1996 helped gay rights activists as part of his law firm’s pro bono work in preparation for the Romer case. He also has a lesbian cousin, Jean Podrasky, who attended arguments on Prop 8.

Suzanne Goldberg, a lesbian and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, pointed to another comment Roberts made indicating a parent forcing a child to make friends with another child changes the definition of friendship.

“It suggested that he might be less open to recognizing marriage rights for same-sex couples than the Olson-Boies team had anticipated,” Goldberg said.

Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (Photo public domain)

2. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, viewed by many as the most anti-gay of the justices, mused that being raised by gay parents may not be good for a child — an argument made by many anti-gay groups.

“If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not,” Scalia said. “Some states do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.”

Those words are consistent with anti-gay views that Scalia has expressed in the past. Most notably, speaking at Princeton in December, Scalia compared bans on sodomy to laws against murder, saying, “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

Since his confirmation to the court, Scalia has not only made anti-gay rulings, but has taken the lead on the opinions. The Reagan-appointed justice wrote the dissenting opinions in the Romer and Lawrence cases and joined with other dissenting justices in ruling for LGBT exclusion in the Christian Legal Society case.

Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and a professor at Loyola Law School, said Scalia is likely to rule to uphold Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Justice Scalia has made clear in earlier opinions … that legislation can be justified merely by moral disapproval of homosexuality, even though a majority of the court has rejected that position,” NeJaime said. “Moreover, under his theory of constitutional interpretation, he does not believe that lesbians and gay men have a constitutional basis for their claims in these cases.”

Anthony Kennedy, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy (Photo public domain)

3. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy

The justice who’s being most closely watched because of his reputation for being a swing vote — and his previous rulings in favor of gay rights — conveyed mixed sentiments during the arguments.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy contemplated the effect that overturning or sustaining Prop 8 would have on children based on the newness of same-sex marriage.

“We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more,” Kennedy said. “On the other hand, there is … what could be a legal injury, and that’s the voice of these children. There are some 40,000 children in California … that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status.”

A Reagan appointee, Kennedy authored the majority opinions in the Romer and Lawrence cases that struck down anti-gay measures in those lawsuits. In the Christian Legal Society case, Kennedy also ruled in favor of requiring student groups to be open to all students regardless of LGBT status.

That’s what makes Kennedy’s comment questioning the Ninth Circuit ruling against Prop 8, which was largely based on his opinion in Romer, particularly noteworthy.

“The rationale of the Ninth Circuit was much more narrow,” Kennedy said. “It basically said that California, which has been more generous, more open to protecting same-sex couples than almost any state in the union, just didn’t go far enough, and it’s being penalized for not going far enough. That’s a very odd rationale on which to sustain this opinion.”

Nan Hunter, a lesbian law professor at Georgetown University, said the “single most powerful vibe” she received from Kennedy during arguments was his ambivalence.

“My best guess is that in the Perry case, he will rule in some way that avoids discussion of Prop 8’s constitutionality and that in the Windsor case, he will conclude that DOMA is unconstitutional, but his opinion may invoke federalism as much as it does the Equal Protection Clause,” Hunter said.

Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas (Photo public domain)

4. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

In accordance with his custom, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas remained silent for the duration of oral arguments in the marriage cases.

Thomas is known for not asking questions. In January, after seven years of silence, the George H.W. Bush-appointed justice made news when he broke his tradition and cracked a joke about the competency of an attorney during a case unrelated to marriage.

But Thomas has a history of taking the anti-gay side. He ruled in the dissent in the Romer and Lawrence cases and ruled for LGBT exclusion in the Christian Legal Society case.

Chris Stoll, a senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said oral arguments don’t offer any information on how Thomas might rule, but noted the justice’s history of anti-gay opinions.

“He is quite conservative and historically has voted with the other conservative justices in cases involving LGBT equality,” Stoll said.

5. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Photo public domain)

One justice who has a history of ruling in favor of gay rights indicated a disdain for DOMA during oral arguments.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the 1996 law creates two different kinds of unions for same-sex and opposite-sex couples: “the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.”

While questioning attorney Paul Clement, Ginsburg more distinctly articulated the problems for gay couples under DOMA by enumerating benefits denied to them under the law.

“The problem is if we are totally for the states’ decision that there is a marriage between two people, for the federal government then to come in to say no joint return, no marital deduction, no Social Security benefits; your spouse is very sick but you can’t get leave; people — if that set of attributes, one might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg also has a history suggesting she’d be willing to rule against Prop 8 and DOMA. The Clinton-appointed justice ruled in favor of LGBT advocates in the Romer, Lawrence and Christian Legal Society cases. Prior to her confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg was a women’s rights advocate and co-founder of the women’s rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

David Gans, civil rights director for the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center, said he considers Ginsburg a likely vote to strike down DOMA and Prop 8 based on her history of rulings and comments made in court.

“I think her comments tended to be across the board very skeptical of the justifications offered, and, of course, her record, both as an advocate and justice is to honor the constitutional guarantee of equal protection applies to all persons,” Gans said.

Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer (Photo public domain)

6. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

The other Clinton appointee on the bench also made comments during the Prop 8 arguments suggesting he might rule in favor of marriage rights for gay couples.

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer was dismissive of Cooper’s assertion that marriage is for procreation, observing California allows straight couples who cannot have children to marry.

“What precisely is the way in which allowing gay couples to marry would interfere with the vision of marriage as procreation of children that allowing sterile couples of different sexes to marry would not?” Breyer said. “I mean, there are lots of people who get married who can’t have children.”

And Breyer’s earlier rulings suggest he would be amenable to striking down Prop 8 and DOMA. Breyer joined Kennedy and other justices in the pro-gay rulings for Romer and Lawrence and sided with LGBT inclusion in the Christian Legal Society Case.

Gans said Breyer’s comments during the Prop 8 arguments indicate his rulings on the anti-gay measures will likely be consistent with his earlier decisions.

“Justice Breyer’s questions during oral argument suggested that he would find that discriminatory marriage laws violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection for all persons,” Gans said.

Samuel Alito, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Samuel Alito (Photo public domain)

7. Associate Justice Samuel Alito

Associate Justice Samuel Alito expressed concerns about same-sex marriage, quipping that it’s “newer than cell phones or the Internet.”

“Same-sex marriage is very new,” Alito said. “I think it was first adopted in the Netherlands in 2000. So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe.”

An appointee of President George W. Bush, Alito hasn’t been on the court long enough to have ruled in the earlier landmark Lawrence and Romer cases. But he wrote the dissenting opinion in favor of LGBT exclusion in the Christian Legal Society case.

Lavi Soloway, a gay immigration attorney and co-founder of The DOMA Project, said he expects Alito to be consistent and issue an anti-gay decision in the cases before him — taking note of the exchange in the Prop 8 case.

“This line of thinking was disappointing; it not only belittled the fight for equality, but suggested that Justice Alito would first need to be convinced of the ‘effects’ of same-sex marriage before he could determine whether gay and lesbian Americans have a constitutionally protected right to marry,” Soloway said. “This exchange suggested to me that Alito will most likely vote to uphold Prop 8, preferring that legislatures continue to wrestle with this issue.”

Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Photo public domain)

8. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Another justice — this one appointed by President Obama — asked some of the most pointed questions about whether there’s any reason anti-gay laws could survive the court’s lowest standard of review.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed attorney Charles Cooper on whether he could conceive of anti-gay laws on other issues other than marriage that could survive rational basis review. The answer from Cooper was that he could not.

“If that is true, then why aren’t they a class?” Sotomayor responded. “If they’re a class that makes any other discrimination improper, irrational, then why aren’t we treating them as a class for this one thing?”

Sotomayor’s response suggests she might agree with the Obama administration that laws related to sexual orientation should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption they’re unconstitutional.

A newcomer to the court, Sotomayor hasn’t had the opportunity to rule on many of the earlier LGBT rights cases that have come before the bench. But in the Christian Legal Society case, she joined four other justices in ruling student groups had to accept all students regardless of LGBT status.

Notably, Sotomayor was the only one among nine justices who responded to a letter from a North Carolina 6th grader named Cameron urging justices to rule in favor of marriage equality. The justice said she had no comment on the marriage cases, but urged Cameron to keep “dreaming big.”

NCLR’s Stoll pointed to Sotomayor’s exchange with Cooper as evidence she’d rule against Prop 8 and had similar expectations for how she’d rule on DOMA.

“She seemed perplexed and unpersuaded by Cooper’s argument that excluding gay people from marriage somehow promotes ‘responsible procreation’ by different-sex couples,” Stoll said.

Elena Kagan, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Associate Justice Elena Kagan (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

9. Associate Justice Elena Kagan

Yet another justice appointed by President Obama seemed skeptical about arguments presented by proponents of Prop 8 and DOMA.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan suggested to attorney Paul Clement that Congress may have had another motive other than uniformity when it determined to pass the anti-gay law.

“This was a real difference in the uniformity that the federal government was pursuing,” Kagan said. “And it suggests that maybe something — maybe Congress had something different in mind than uniformity.”

Clement offered a lengthy response in which he talked about federal bans on polygamy and laws after the Civil War allowing freed slaves to marry. But Kagan responded by reading from the House report on DOMA, which states the law was passed “to reflect an honor of collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality” — deemed a “gotcha” moment that elicited laughter from those in the courtroom.

During the Prop 8 arguments, Kagan was also skeptical of Cooper’s argument that the purpose of marriage is procreation and asked for a legitimate reason for excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

“Is there any reason that you have for excluding them?” Kagan said. “In other words, you’re saying, well, if we allow same-sex couples to marry, it doesn’t serve the state’s interest. But do you go further and say that it harms any state interest?”

Like Sotomayor, Kagan is a relative newcomer to the court and hasn’t had the opportunity to rule on gay cases. During her confirmation hearing, Kagan wouldn’t say whether the she thinks the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

Still, Loyola’s NeJaime said Kagan seemed bothered during oral arguments by equal protections concerns presented by Prop 8 and DOMA.

“Given her lengthy questions about the relationship between age and procreative ability, she seems unconvinced by the ‘responsible procreation’ rationale for same-sex marriage bans,” NeJaime said. “And given her reading of the House report on DOMA regarding the ‘moral disapproval of homosexuality,’ she is suggesting that the law may not survive rational basis review.”

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Robben Wainer

    April 4, 2013 at 2:47 am

    We have positivive profiles that help us to express our individuality in a way that inter-personal relationships can be established. Admittining to homophobia as a homosexual is a psychic change that removes the guilt of having to comply with expected roles that for some are too closed minded.

  2. Michael Westendorf

    April 7, 2013 at 5:12 am

    John Roberts is chief justice of the United States, not "…of the Supreme Court." See: 28 U.S.C. § 1.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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