Ann Arbor VA Offers Dignity To Those Who Served
Originally printed 10/31/2013 (Issue 2144 - Between The Lines News) http://www.pridesource.com/guidearticle.html?article=62963
By Crystal Proxmire
Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country have made strides in the service they offer to LGBT veterans thanks to Federal mandates pushed by the Obama administration. But over and above the call of duty, the folks at the Ann Arbor VA have embraced diversity and service to those who have served.
When Andrew Hunter, 31, returned from Army Reserve Service in Iraq, he got his first "big boy job" at the VA just over two years ago. His job is as a medical support assistant, but he also volunteers as LGBT special emphasis program manager and as the coordinator of the LGBT Vet to Vet group.
Prior to joining the VA, Hunter struggled to find his place. "Before this I was in the Army National Guard. I was in and out of school because of the army. I served for eight years. When I finally got out in 2009 I was unemployed for a long time. It was hard to get a job when I got back from Iraq. I knew for years I wanted to work for the VA. I worked at Target and I was a volunteer at the VA and that's how I got my foot in the door. I was really excited just to be there," he said.
The excitement grew when he met Diana Cass, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Minority Veterans Program manager. She spoke at the new employee orientation and she told Hunter about the support available for out employees. Hunter joined the LGBT program and took on the leadership position several months ago.
The special emphasis program focuses on employee needs, while the Vet to Vet group is for anyone and is not an official part of the VA. There are other Vet to Vet groups, but Hunter created the LGBT-specific group back in the spring.
"LGBT vets are not comfortable going to a group where they don't know how people will respond," he said. "This way they know up front." The group is still gathering members, and focuses on interpersonal connections.
The LGBT Special Emphasis Program has blossomed. They have put up signs throughout the center letting people know that it is a safe and inclusive environment. They have created a transgender inclusion policy and they have reached out to care providers to educate them on LGBT needs and issues. Earlier this month they began an ally ribbon program where doctors and other staff could wear a rainbow ribbon that says "ally" on it.
"I wanted to focus on people who support the LGBT community for coming out of the closet as an ally. We made rainbow ribbons and wrote ally on them. I thought it was really important to show that we have allies. You'd be walking down the hall and see the rainbow ribbon and know that you had an ally. I thought we might hand out maybe 50. It ended up being close to 250 ribbons and there's still people coming up and asking Diana if they can get a ribbon," Hunter said. They are even now sending ribbons to other VA locations because the idea took off so well.
"When we were wearing the ribbons there was a veteran that went up to a clerk in the primary care area. The patient was checking out and she smiled and said, 'Thank you for wearing that; it means a lot.' Even if it was that one person that said that, it means this was worth it.
"Of all the special emphasis programs - we have seven of them - Andrew has more members than any other group," Cass said. "It says there is a need. My hope is when they come in the door and there's a sign that welcomes LGBT patients and a doctor has a rainbow ribbon on, it is a more welcoming environment. The VA was created to care for all of our veterans."
In 2012 they held the Ann Arbor VA's first VA Pride. "We had a few different booths," Hunter said.
"U-M Spectrum Center came and showed their support. A massage company, Balance Massage, came out and donated a certificate and two therapists that gave massages. We had information and education on what services we provide here at the VA."
They have also done outreach at LGBT events, including the Gay Rodeo, Ann Arbor Out Fest and the Transgender Health Fair at Affirmations in Ferndale.
The Ann Arbor VA serves 62,000 vets a year, but there is no system in place for tracking sexual orientation. Recently, the VA was honored with attaining "leadership" status in the Human Rights Campaign's list of LGBT friendly hospitals.