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Fourth 'Do Ask, Do Tell' looks at health disparities
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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The fourth annual "Do Ask, Do Tell" symposium, held at Rush University Medical Center's Searle conference facility on Oct. 9, focused primarily on the health needs that LGBTQ and veteran individuals face while examining how to create welcoming and safe environments in the services available to them.

The symposium's co-sponsors included the Rush Road Home Program, the Tawani Foundation, The Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration, the Rush LGBTQ Health Committee of the Diversity Leadership Council and the World Professional Association for Trans Health (WPATH).

Following the Color Guard that the Chicago chapter of the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) provided and the national anthem sung by Jaimie Matthews, openly transgender Sgt. Shane Ortega provided the tenor of the day with his statements.

"There is a prevalence and need for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and anxiety care for our veterans," Ortega told Windy City Times. "Inclusion, cultural competency and sensitivity need to be integrated for transgender care for both actively serving guardsmen and reserve as well our veterans. Because of our professions, we are intrinsically trusted and valued as being not only knowledgeable and competent but also caring. As we go forward, our job is to look at these individuals and create a solution for problems. We're not there to be judge and jury but to continue on the humanist perspective of our society."

The Department of Defense (DoD) still denies open service for transgender members of the military. In July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter tasked a six-month working group to start "with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness."

Ortega—who created the first trans-military organization which was then part of OutServe—said that he finds the ban on United States trans service members "baffling."

"It's unfathomable that we are so caveman-like in our thinking," he noted. "We're the greatest country in the world, yet we can't acknowledge people for their gender and sexuality. All this harping about bathrooms and gender neutral spaces is ludicrous and pedantic. If we stopped treating adult human beings like children, we wouldn't have child-like problems."

Ortega added that—despite his confident in forward progress for transgender soldiers in 2016—change, in terms of not only the military but the society it serves, hinges upon education "at every level from the top to the bottom to make sure we create positives waves outward."

One of the quintessential providers of that education has been the symposium's keynote speaker Professor and Associate Chair of Psychiatry at East Tennessee State University Dr. George R. Brown, MD, DFAPA.

With well over 110 published papers and contributions to 15 books along with his 2012 development of the largest database on transgender people in the world, Brown has forced open the door to quantifiable research into transgender issues particularly the health disparities faced by transgender veterans.

"From 2010 and earlier there is a grand total of three total papers," he told the audience. "Since that time a number of us have been working vigorously on producing more. It took 22-years to go from a [research] sample of eleven people to get to seventy. It shows how slow this field developed in terms of actual information, not anonymous survey data which is not the data I need when I want to develop knowledge of health disparities based on actual human beings."

From the seventy people Brown talked to individually, he noted that "three quarters of folks were using hormones often obtained illicitly while on active duty. The majority received illegal health care through the VA [Veterans Administration] prior to 2011. Sixty-one percent endured suicidal thoughts. One in 10 had a potentially lethal attempt."

"We were able to confirm a substantial increase in [transgender] suicide risk behaviors compared to the general VA population and the US population at large," Brown added. "The rate was twenty times higher than the general VA population. That is the highest number for any sub-population studied in the VA. We need federal coverage for the entire range of transgender healthcare, period. The DoD needs to move forward in 2016 with transgender inclusiveness. The time is right to do it and we need to do it now."

Tanya Friese, DNP, RN, CNL, USN (ret) serves as vice-chair for the Rush LGBTQ Heath Committee of the Diversity Leadership Council.

"The military community has come-out in terms of gay, straight, trans—it doesn't matter. If someone's got your back in a foxhole that's all that matters," Friese told Windy City Times. "Service members both active and retired don't want to see other service members dishonored for no good reason. If you are just being yourself and doing your job, it doesn't make any sense."

Other speakers included Palm Center Founder and Executive Director Aaron Belkin, Ph.D., and Howard Brown Health Center Director of Geriatric Education Cecilia Hardecker, RN.

For more information on American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), visit

For more information or to get involved with the Rush LGBTQ Health Committee of the Diversity Leadership Council, contact committee chair Christopher Nolan at . For more information on the Tawani Foundation, visit .

For more information on WPATH and Rush Road Home Program, visit and, respectively. For more information on the Hines Veterans Administration, visit .

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