Veterans for Diversity Supporting LGBT Service Members
When a Prussian baron, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, arrived at Valley Forge in 1778, his affection for men was known by his recruiter, Benjamin Franklin. General George Washington also knew. It’s rumored John Adams’ reputedly gay son had a fondness for the Prussian as well. Called the father of the United States Army, von Steuben is considered the reason for the colonial victory in the American Revolution.
Since then, thousands of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and, more recently, transgender service members, have served and continue to serve in the various branches of the United States Armed Forces. However, over the decades, von Steuben’s legacy has not been celebrated in all its aspects. The history of LGBT service members has been hardly as welcoming as his. From criminalization to the interim solution of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” gays in the military have been targets of a repression that was only officially relieved under President Obama in 2011.
A Milwaukee-based, all-volunteer organization, Veterans for Diversity (VfD), was founded prior to the rescinding of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as a means to support LGBT veterans and their families. Today it’s known for its Ceremonial Color Guard at PrideFest. Its members staff an information booth at that event’s Health and Wellness Area. But the group is actually responsible for a much greater impact on the treatment of former LGBT service members. According to Ellen Kozel, one of the group’s founding members, Veterans for Diversity made the Veterans’ Administration (VA) aware of the existence of LGBT veterans and their specific needs. That opened the door for the development of the VA’s LGBT friendly attitude.
And, with the increasing needs of veterans, the organization continues to expand its reach to all former service members. “No veteran is ever turned away,” Kozel explained. She then went on to list upcoming retreats and other events where VfD is collaborating with a broad spectrum of partners. For example, the Fifth Annual VA Mental Health Summit takes place on Friday, June 16. Here the VA is working in conjunction with the Military & Veterans Resource Center at UW-Milwaukee and various service and social organizations like VfD to provide LGBTQ+ veterans with resources and access to information about programs available to them. The group will have a booth at the VA’s 150th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, June 3, and from June 23-25, the Center for Creative Learning hosts “Healing Warrior Hearts” with VfD support.
Then there’s a Healing Retreat, Aug. 18-20. All LGBT veterans are welcome to attend. It will provide a program specifically designed to address the health issues of LGBT veterans who served under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the problems they still experience as well as the continued discrimination against active LGBT military and veterans. Finally, VfD will be represented at the Indian Summer veterans’ area.
We’ve just celebrated Memorial Day in remembrance of those who have died or been wounded in the wars that have preserved our nation. Our LGBT veterans are equally part of our military heritage. We should never forget them.