Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced at a Pride event on Saturday that the department will offer gender confirmation surgery to veterans

By Virginia Chamlee
June 21, 2021 12:21 PM
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Charlotte Clymer
Charlotte Clymer
| Credit: Joy Asico/AP/Shutterstock

Transgender veterans are celebrating after the Department of Veterans Affairs' recent announcement it will move to offer gender confirmation surgery as part of a large-scale expansion of benefits.

"Elections matter, folks. Elections always matter. I'm incredibly happy right now," wrote activist and veteran Charlotte Clymer, in a tweet posted shortly after the announcement was made.

In a statement sent to PEOPLE, Clymer elaborated on the announcement, saying she was "grateful" to the administration "for stepping up."

"Gender-affirming health care is life-saving health care," the statement read. "This new policy not only makes critical medical care accessible for transgender veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country but sends a resolute signal on where the American health care system needs to go overall in terms of health care access for all transgender people. This new policy is going to save lives far beyond those of us who use the VA health care system. I'm grateful to President Biden and Secretary McDonough for stepping up and ensuring no veteran is left behind."

The National Center for Transgender Equality celebrated the news as well, noting on Twitter that there are some 134,000 trans veterans in the U.S. The group estimates about 15,000 people who are transgender are currently serving in the military.

"Everyone should have access to the health care they need to live healthy, happy lives," said Mara Keisling, the executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "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.

Keisling added: "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."

Currently, the Veterans Health Administration provides care for transgender veterans, but previous regulations excluded transition-related surgical care. 

On Saturday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced at a Pride Month event in Orlando that the Biden administration was changing that, after acknowledging the "dark history" of discrimination against LGBTQ service members in America.

"We're making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives," McDonough said, adding that the move will allow "transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side." 

The latest announcement comes just months after President Joe Biden overturned former President Donald Trump's 2018 prohibition on transgender people in the military.

"What I'm doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform," Biden, 78, said upon signing an executive order in January that allows "all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform."

In February, McDonough ordered a review of the Veterans Affairs' department's policies to "ensure that transgender Veterans and employees do not face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity and expression."

Clymer, a 34-year-old transgender woman, previously spoke about her own experience serving in the military and criticized the Trump administration's transgender military ban, in a 2019 commentary for CBS News.

"For over three years, I carried caskets in Arlington National Cemetery," Clymer wrote. "I folded American flags for loved ones. I ceremoniously unloaded transfer cases of the remains of our fallen warriors in uniform being carried home from Iraq and Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware."

She said: "The lies perpetuated about transgender people serving in the military have been thoroughly debunked and rejected, by medical experts, by budget analysts, by military generals and admirals, by the vast majority of the American people, and not least by a history of Americans who have been barred from service and proved bigots wrong."

McDonough said the vast policy change will take time to switch over, but said it's one that's been "deserved for a long time."