Salt Lake City VA helps transgender vets do something they couldn’t do in the military: Be their authentic selves

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake City VA) The logo and motto for the Gender Identity Veteran Experience (GIVE) program at the VA in Salt Lake City.

For 20 years serving in the Coast Guard, Jocelyn Barnes said she wasn’t able to be herself.

The command staff and officers there saw her as a man, and under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the time, she didn’t correct them. Instead, she dressed and talked like they expected, answered to “sir” and kept the fact that she really wanted to serve on the high seas as a female — the gender she knows herself to be — a secret.

If she didn’t, she feared she would be discharged.

“Being transgender is a challenge,” the new Utah resident said. Being transgender in the military, she added, is even more so.

It wasn’t until she left the force honorably a few years ago that Barnes felt she could finally and openly identify as a woman. And she’s been able to transition with help from somewhere she never thought she’d find it: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It’s maybe a surprise for people,” said Breeze Hannaford, who coordinates the Gender Identity Veteran Experience (GIVE) program at the VA in Salt Lake City. “The military has this culture that historically is homophobic, transphobic, hyper-masculine and toxic.”

But she’s trying to change that. Though military policy currently prevents transgender people from serving openly and bans them from service — a reversal under the Trump administration of previous rules — Hannaford said she can work with LGBTQ veterans to be their authentic selves.

Her program provides comprehensive care, mental health support, hormone therapy and vocal coaching all targeted to veterans’ identities, as well as wigs or binders to make their bodies look how they want. (Surgeries are a bit trickier under current administrative rules, which require gender reassignment operations to be medically necessary — such as removing breasts for back pain.)

Hannaford spoke about her work Saturday at genderevolution, Utah’s only gender conference to focus on resources for transgender and gender-nonconforming communities.

The veteran session was the day’s first panel, and Barnes sat on the front row, confidently wearing a pink T-shirt.

She recently moved to Utah for work and is excited to use the services for transgender veterans here. They exist in a few cities and states around the country. She started getting the support in Philadelphia. The hardest part was knowing where to go.

“I went to my primary care doctor for help transitioning. She didn’t know what to do,” Barnes said. “But then she called me back about a week or a week and a half later and referred me to the VA. The next thing I know — I’m meeting all of these great people. I had no idea those services were there.”

It still surprises her a bit that the VA offers care for transgender veterans — particularly since she didn’t feel supported while in the military. But, Barnes added, it’s helped her figure out how she wants to present, get hormone therapy and find “a road map to be myself.” She also wants to try vocal coaching to make her voice sound more feminine.

“I wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t for that,” she said, twirling the diamond heart-shape necklace around her neck. “And I still have a ways to go.”

The Salt Lake City VA’s program started in 2008 but has expanded in the past five years. Hannaford told conferencegoers that most of the services, including transgender and intersex support groups, look at gender dysphoria, which is a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which they identify. It can cause significant stress, in addition to the PTSD often connected with military service.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) A flier from the LGBT veteran care program at the Salt Lake City VA.

“A large part of my PTSD issues sprang from the fact that I was treated as a woman in the military,” said Jacalyn Lawler, 38, a bisexual and nonbinary individual who identifies with they/them pronouns.

Lawler served in the Air Force from 2002 to 2005 and left with a medical discharge for psychological reasons. They said they suffered abuse that led to a breakdown. “I had got so tied up in conforming," Lawler said, “that it made it harder for me to report the abuse.”

Now Lawler works as a peer support specialist in the LGBTQ program at the VA in Salt Lake City. They also have been a patient there for 13 years.

“People who identify as LGBTQIA have served in the military for all time,” they added. “And not being able to identify authentically while they’re in the service entitles them to specific care. We absolutely should provide that support.”

Saturday’s conference drew some 400 people to Salt Lake City’s Horizonte Instruction and Training Center near the Utah Pride Center, which hosted it. In the classroom during the VA event, there were American flags and a poster with soldiers that said, “One flag! One land! One heart! One nation! Ever more!”

When Sean walked into the room, he quickly pointed to it with a smile. “How fitting!”

Sean, who asked to be identified only by his first name for privacy, served in the Marine Corps from 1991 to 1996.

“I served as a woman Marine then,” he said. “It was a time when harassment and assault was commonplace.”

Sean, a transgender man, has been haunted by one episode in particular when he was working as a military police officer. He said he’s worked through some of that in the veteran LGBTQ program.

“They made sure I got the help I needed,” he said. “Outside of the VA, there are a lot of doctors who don’t understand transgender issues.”

When Sean went to the hospital after breaking his kneecap about 10 years ago, he said, the nurse refused to help him. She didn’t come when he pressed the call button in his room. And she wouldn’t assist him or hand him his crutch when he had to use the restroom.

“She would not help me because I was transgender,” he said.

At the VA, he added, there are “allies in the system. … They are aware. They care. They work together.”

VAs across the country, but particularly in Salt Lake City, are the biggest health care providers for the LGBTQ community, said Michelle Wilcox, the LGBTQ veteran care coordinator at the VA.

“We offer safe, gender and trauma-informed care,” she noted. “The goal of the whole program is to promote the health, welfare and dignity of the LGBTQ veteran.”

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Wilcox, the LGBT veteran care coordinator at the Salt Lake City VA, speaks about the program there.