Republican lawmakers are demanding that Veterans Affairs leaders stop allowing LGBT Pride flags to be flown at department buildings this month, calling it political posturing that could discourage some veterans from seeking care.
But the department’s top spokesman said there are no plans to pull down the flags, insisting they represent “a symbol of VA’s commitment to inclusion” which will help broaden the department’s outreach efforts.
The showdown is the latest chapter in the ongoing fight between conservative lawmakers and President Joe Biden’s administration over diversity and inclusion efforts, a likely key friction point in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.
The rainbow flags are currently displayed at numerous department medical centers and other buildings. A VA spokesman would not confirm any cases of threats or property damage related to the items in recent weeks.
But in a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough this week, the group of Republican lawmakers said they want the pro-LGBT symbols removed immediately, calling them political statements that some veterans may find offensive.
“Veterans who have served our country deserve to enter a facility that is free from discrimination and political posturing,” they wrote, casting the pride flags as political statements. “These men and women were apolitical when they served our country, and we should strive to provide them with an apolitical VA when they seek the care, benefits, and services that they have earned.”
The letter was signed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., House Armed Services Committee personnel panel Chairman Jim Banks, R-Ind., and several other members of both committees.
In a separate letter, House and Senate Republicans from Mississippi asked the department to remove a temporary Pride flag from the VA cemetery in Harrison County, calling it a political stunt.
VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said the practice of flying the flags has been allowed in previous years during June, celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. McDonough authorized the move again this year “as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of LGBTQ+ veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.” Local officials can decide whether to display the flags or not.
Hayes also disputed Republican assertions that local officials had taken down the American flag at various sites to make room for the rainbow flag. “The Pride Flag has not and would never replace the hanging of the American Flag at any facility,” he said.
At the VA central office in Washington, D.C., for example, the Pride flag is hung underneath the American flag and POW/MIA flag outside the main building entrance.
McDonough has come under fire from Republican lawmakers in recent weeks for what they see as political attacks on GOP budget proposals. They have threatened to limit funding and restrict operations in retaliation, although such a move is unlikely to receive the backing from Senate Democrats needed to enforce such penalties.
VA officials estimate that roughly 1 million veterans nationwide (about 5% of the American veteran population) identify as gay or bisexual.
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.