Transgender veterans and advocates rallied outside the Capitol Wednesday to demand Veterans Affairs officials follow through on promises to provide gender-affirming surgery at department medical centers and to implore lawmakers to enact additional protections for transgender troops facing an uncertain future in the ranks.
“We need this administration and Congress to do everything in their power to protect trans Americans,” said Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America. “It’s not just a matter of comfort. It’s a vital matter of survival.”
Church and other advocates said political attacks on transgender individuals have mounted in state legislatures and in Congress in recent months. At least 11 states have passed laws restricting transgender medical care or advocacy since the start of 2023, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.
And legislation proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio, D-Fla., last month would reverse policies allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. Participants at the rally called that a direct attack on their service to America and a potentially harmful recruiting message for the force.
But the group’s at Wednesday’s event were also frustrated by officials within President Joe Biden’s administration, pointing to some promised protections for transgender Americans that have not been carried out.
In June 2021, VA officials announced they would for the first time offer surgeries for transgender veterans seeking to alter their physical attributes. The move was hailed by equal rights groups as an important step forward for the department, and an extension of public promises by VA Secretary Denis McDonough to make his agency welcoming to all veterans.
But nearly two years later, rules regarding the gender reassignment surgeries are still under review, and procedures have not begun at any VA locations. McDonough said the delay does not represent any hesitation towards the surgeries, but instead an abundance of caution.
“I want to make sure I study it very closely and I understand it,” McDonough said after an appearance on Capitol Hill earlier on Wednesday. “There is going to be a lot of interest in it, and I want to make sure that I’m in the best position to explain it and to defend it.”
McDonough said the department currently offers other support to transgender veterans, including a range of medical care services.
The rulemaking process for major VA policy changes often takes months. But even by those slow bureaucratic standards, the nearly two-year wait on regulations for transgender surgeries stands out as unusually long.
“Allowing VA to provide gender affirming surgery isn’t just the right thing to do. It will undeniably save lives,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, R-Calif., during Wednesday’s rally. “But it is still not available to our trans veterans … We need VA to act, and to act now.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans in America today, and another 15,000 transgender individuals serving in the armed forces. Conservative groups have disputed those numbers, insisting they are far lower.
VA officials have estimated that around 4,000 veterans nationwide may be interested in the surgeries. They have defended the policy change as a way to provide for the health needs of transgender veterans.
But the policy has come under fire from conservative lawmakers who say it’s a politically-motivated and potentially costly move that will not benefit most veterans.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing earlier on Wednesday, Republican lawmakers questioned how much more an expansion of VA transgender services would cost and what other programs might be impacted by those funding decisions.
Advocates say unless lawmakers establish clear protections for transgender troops and veterans, they could see their ability to serve in the military and receive veterans benefits stripped away under future administrations.
“Even without bans being enacted, the potential to do just that is an unnecessary distraction for our dedicated transgender service members from their military missions,” said Melody Stachour, director of community relations for the transgender military advocacy group SPARTA.
“Our service members and our veterans have stood and protected our nation. Now is the time for our nation and our government to stand up and protect them.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.