The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday opened its first clinic specifically geared toward treating transgender veterans.
The Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in Ohio will provide primary care, hormone therapy and mental health care to up to 20 transgender veterans one day a month, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.
"I feel there are a lot of transgender patients in the veteran population who haven't been able to find the care they need," Megan McNamara, a VA physician who will run the clinic, told the Plain Dealer. "I really want to be able to provide comprehensive, one-stop care for those patients in a welcoming environment … a place where they're comfortable and accepted."
The move comes as the Pentagon eases policies for the estimated 15,500 transgender troops actively serving (PDF) in the military, and after it announced in July that it was convening a working group to assess the impact of lifting the ban on trans soldiers altogether.
An estimated 134,000 U.S. veterans are transgender, according to the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that conducts research on gender identity law and policy.
Evan Young, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association, says veterans are five times as likely to be transgender as non-veterans.
He says that veterans suffering from gender dysphoria — when a person feels that his or her gender identity is different from the gender assigned at birth — should be able to go to the doctor and receive medical treatment, just as they would for any other condition.
"When you’re sick, when you have a cold or you break your arm … you go to the doctor to get care,” Young said. “And the cure that we [trans people] need is hormones, and gender reassignment surgery in order to make us feel better, in order to treat our gender dysphoria.”
Young, who celebrated Cleveland’s trans-specific clinic, said the VA has been working hard to address the health needs of its transgender veterans. In 2013 the agency released a health care directive on how to best treat them. The agency does not, however, cover the costs of gender reassignment surgery for veterans.
Young said that in 2016 the VA will change the gender field on its Computerized Patient Record System (CPRS) to include a box for a patient to mark sex at birth and another to mark the patient’s current gender. That’s because some trans veterans may have certain medical needs related to their biologically assigned sex, but are presenting publically as the gender to which they have transitioned.
“But when they go for their appointment, and they call out ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.,’ the VA will be able to recognize that,” Young said.
Young lauded the VA medical center in Little Rock, Arkansas, his home state. But he fields numerous queries from veterans elsewhere who run into problems when trying to officially change genders with the VA, since the computerized system will override such a change. Instead, they must specifically consult a privacy officer to complete the name-change process.
Others allegedly encounter discriminatory health care workers, despite the fact that the VA has been working to improve treatment for its transgender veterans. But attitudes are gradually changing, Young said.
"It’s slowly starting to get to where you don’t think of a drag king or queen, you think of someone who is transgender,” he said. “We’re just regular, everyday people, you know?”