INDIANAPOLIS — On Friday, the local Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs office held an LGBTQ+ veterans health fair at the Irsay Family YMCA.
The group Disabled American Veterans estimates that there are a million LGBTQ+ veterans in the United States. Marc Zaremski with Veterans Health Indiana says it’s impossible to know how many of them live in Indiana since some don’t choose to disclose their status, but the VA predicts it could be around 2,000-3,000.
Experts say LGBTQ+ veterans often faced discrimination and been denied their benefits. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy instituted in 1993 prohibited lesbian, gay, or bisexual service members from disclosing their sexual orientation while serving in the US Military.
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, this resulted in more than 13,000 servicemembers receiving less than honorable discharges. Servicemembers who tested positive for HIV were also given less than honorable discharges. A less than honorable discharge bars a veteran from receiving veteran's benefits.
In recent years, there have been transgender service bans that prevent transgender persons from serving. By law, the VA also cannot perform gender-affirming surgery.
Zaremski says that these sorts of policies have left many LGBTQ+ veterans distrustful of the VA. And as legislators and the VA work to restore benefits to LGBTQ+ veterans, many don’t know that they are once again eligible for full VA benefits.
In September, the VA announced that veterans who received a less than honorable discharge solely because of gender identity, sexual orientation, or HIV status will be eligible for full benefits.
The health fair is a way for the Indiana chapter of the VA to regain some trust, and get LGBTQ+ veterans the help they need, deserve, and have earned, according to Zaremski.
“You lose trust in buckets, but you earn it in raindrops. So this is a drop in our bucket of working to earn back the trust of our veteran population,” he said.
At the health fair, various veterans organizations and health partners showed veterans options for health care specific to their needs. It is the first of what Zaremski hopes will be an annual event.
LGBTQ+ veterans who need help accessing their benefits can contact the LGBTQ+ Veteran Care department of the VA Indiana Healthcare System.
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