Founding Story

TAVA’s history began when Angela Brightfeather and Monica Helms joined the Yahoo Group list by the name of TS Veterans. The group had been formed to specifically discuss the various issues facing transgender veterans who had to deal with the VA medical facilities and for other health-related issues. The people in the group talked about several things and at one time: everyone began talking about their experiences with different VA facilities across the country. Some on the list had great experiences, while others elsewhere had horrible ones. Many on the list thought that they had no choice but to take it. This would be the best they could ever expect from the VA.

Out of all the stories told on the list, one seemed to strike a chord with Brightfeather and Helms. It came from a transgender man by the name of Alex Fox. When Fox went to the Washington DC VA facility to get help in the 1990s and they found out he was trans, they refused to provide him with any service at all. He then drove sixty miles north to the VA facility in Baltimore, and they treated him great.

Alex’s story moved Brightfeather and Helms, and they decided something had to be done about this. Both served on National Transgender Advocacy Coalition’s Activism Committee (NTAC) and figured the Committee could work on this issue. However, after seeing the extent of the problem facing transgender veterans, they felt that it should have its own committee in NTAC to work on the problem.

The bases of the problem came from a Public Law that the VA medical facilities interpret in different ways, causing inconsistency across the country when it came to transgender veterans. Public Law (PL) 104-262 reads as follows (please note the vague terminology in the language):

Public Law (PL) 104-262,
Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996

Public Law (PL) 104-262, Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, “calls for VA to furnish hospital care and medical services that are defined as ‘needed’. VA defines ‘needed’ as care or services that will promote, preserve, and restore health. This includes a treatment, procedure, supply or service.” Some health care services “that will not normally be covered include abortion, membership in health clubs or spas for rehabilitation, special private duty nursing and gender alteration.”

Department of Veterans Affairs M-2, Part XIV, Veterans Health Administration, Washington, DC 20420 November 17, 1993.

a. Chapter 11: Gender Reorientation (Sex Change). It is VA policy that transsexual surgery will not be performed in VA medical centers or under VA auspices. Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will not carry out any process or procedure involving genital identity revision.

Federal Register: November 1, 1996 (Volume 61, Number 213)] [Proposed Rules] Sec. 17.270 General Provisions.

(a) CHAMPVA is the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Pursuant to 38 U.S.C. 1713, VA is authorized to provide medical care in the same or similar manner and subject to the same or similar limitations as medical care furnished to certain dependents and survivors of active duty and retired members of the Armed Forces.

Federal Register / Vol. 64, No 193 / October 6, 1999 Paragraph 17.38 Medical Benefits Package (c) (4) was added to deny treatment for “Gender alterations.”

Sec. 17.272 Benefits Limitations/Exclusions.

The following are specifically excluded from program (23) Services and supplies related to transsexualism or other similar conditions such as gender dysphoria (including, but not limited to, intersex surgery and psychotherapy, except for ambiguous genitalia which was documented to be present at birth).

The real problem did not come from the vague terms like “genital identity revision” and “gender alteration,” but in the interpretation of this law at each individual VA facility. Some facilities look at this law and thought, “This means we cannot do sex change operations or pay for them, but we can do everything else for the transgender veteran.” Other facilities – like the one in DC at the time Fox went there – use the law as a blanket excuse not to treat a transgender veteran for any health issue. Most facilities fell somewhere in the middle, providing everything to pre-operative transgender veterans, except psychotherapy and hormones. Most post-operative transgender veterans would receive everything from the VA. Many transgender veterans needing the VA for their medical issues were not in a position to afford Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), and they could not afford to buy hormones at full price. Thus, they did not receive treatment that helped them progress in their transition.

Because of the extent of the problem, Brightfeather and Helms convinced the other NTAC board members to allow them to form a VA Committee, so they could support transgender veterans. However, many transgender veterans on the TS Veterans list got upset with them, because they felt that if NTAC began talking to Congress and the VA, they could end the good service some actually received from the VA. The concerns they voiced about not causing any transgender veterans from losing good service became a centerpiece of the advocacy in that area for the NTAC VA Committee. Robyn Walters, the Moderator of the TS Veterans Yahoo Group helped in supporting the efforts of Brightfeather and Helms.

NTAC’s VA Committee existed for eighteen months, with Helms as the Chair and Walters as the Vice-Chair. They spent the time gathering information and statistics on all the issues facing transgender veterans and ways to combat these problems without affecting the good services some veterans had. When Human Rights Campaign (HRC,) Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and the American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) all got together to promote their “Profiles in Courage” program, designed to record the military experiences of GLBT veterans, NTAC’s VA Committee came out in support of it. However, since they only existed as a committee in an organization and not a full-fledged organization, the other three national groups would not list them as a supporter.

As time went on, it became more and more apparent that the scope of the issues facing transgender veterans would soon overwhelm a mere committee. On January 12, 2003, Helms resigned from the NTAC Board and formed the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA.) It started off like NTAC as a Yahoo Group and eventually Brightfeather and Walters joined, as well as many of the community’s good activists.

The formation of TAVA allowed a group of transgender activists to specifically concentrate on the larger VA issues and to create a vehicle where more resources could be used to focus on those issues. TAVA also felt a need to include the transgender people still serving in the military, because if any of them ran into trouble, they would have an organization to turn to in providing them some help.

Less than one month after TAVA opened its “doors,” Janice Josephine Carney contacted the Library of Congress and set TAVA up as a national supporter of their Veterans History Project. This project, which HRC, SLDN and AVER based their Profiles in Courage program on, recorded the military experiences of all veterans, specifically the WWII veterans. The Library of Congress said that 1500 WWII veterans die each day and most will have their contributions to our freedoms die with them. The Library of Congress did a wonderful job of preserving their stories and TAVA wanted to make sure the stories of transgender veterans would be preserved as well. Carney made it possible for some transgender veterans to be included in this project.

Over the next six months, TAVA did all the necessary things an organization needed to do to get themselves started. They wrote a mission statement, goals, vision statement, by-laws and other important organizational documents. They had a web site created, designed logos and emblems, plus put together all the things necessary to set them apart from everyone else. They had elections of officers and other board members, and the members elected Helms as the President.

In September 2003, Brightfeather and Helms began an important discussion over drinks at the bar where the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) took place. Brightfeather had been elected as TAVA’s Special Projects Director, and she brought up the idea that she and Helms had kicked around for the last three years. In a sweat lodge in the mountains of North Carolina, Brightfeather had a vision of transgender veterans meeting at the Vietnam Memorial and all the healing that would take place there. She told a group of veterans at SCC that TAVA should sponsor her idea, and in doing so, the event became the first ever Transgender Veterans March to the Wall. They also decided at that discussion that they would lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They set the date for the March for May 1, 2004.

For the next three months, Helms and Brightfeather discussed this idea with the TAVA Board members only because they learned from a disastrous attempt by others who tried to plan a Transgender March on Washington. A group of people had this great idea to march on Washington, but before settling on anything at all, they revealed their intentions to the entire transgender community and proceeded to get torn up one side and down the other. Many in the community came up with all the reason it would fail, and since the planners had nothing set in stone, they could not counter those complaints. Helms and Brightfeather knew that if they were to have a successful event, then they needed to have practically everything in place before they could let the general public know. This included planning on how to respond to the various complaints that would surface.

Over the next several months, TAVA concentrated all their time and efforts toward making this historical event happen. They wrote to the appropriate people to get permission to lay the wreath at the time they requested, raised funds and made all the arrangements with hotel, bus service and flower shop. Brightfeather left no stone unturned. For this event, she shifted into her drill sergeant mode. It proved to be the best thing for TAVA. Even after the March to the Wall became public, transgender people tried to tear the idea down. Brightfeather and Helms had all the answers to shut them down.

Three things happened before the March that involved TAVA. On the first week of October 2003, the SLDN had their annual “End the Witch Hunts” Dinner to raise funds to help LGBT veterans caught up in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) law. Helms decided to go to represent TAVA for the first time at this dinner. This proved to be a wise move because she made several new contacts for TAVA and got to meet PFC Barry Winchell’s mother for the first time.

Another thing happened in December of 2003 when Helms went back to DC to check out the various places they planned on visiting during their March. She stayed long enough to speak with a few people involved in the House VA Committee. For the first time since TAVA’s existence someone got to talk with people in Congress on transgender veteran’s issues. Helms met one woman who worked as a legislative aid to a high-ranking Congressman on the House VA Committee, but she did not go alone that day. Mara Kiesling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) had set up the appointments and came with her on the visits.

Kiesling started NCTE around the very time TAVA began, with the purpose of providing the eyes, ears and voice of the transgender community in DC. She also helped individuals and organizations by arranging meetings and coordinating visits to Congressional offices. NCTE had proven to be a very valuable ally to TAVA’s work.

Helms and Kiesling sat down with the legislative aid and gave her all the information on how devastating the VA policy had been toward transgender veterans. When the legislative aid heard the stories, she looked surprised and appalled. She then told them that if any of transgender veterans need help to call her. She did get a chance to help a few veterans before she left her job a few months later. TAVA had hope because more opened minded politicians had become the majority in Congress at the time, so TAVA would have a chance to accomplish some of its goals.

The third item had to do with an organizational first. On March 9, 2004, TAVA became incorporated in the State of California. This became the first step toward acquiring their 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status.

On May 1, 2004, the Transgender American Veterans Association had their first scheduled event as an organization. Fifty people, most of them veterans, gathered in DC to attend the first Transgender Veterans March to the Wall. Brightfeather took charge and had everything running smoothly and on that first morning, the attendees filled a bus to head to the Vietnam Memorial. In front of them drove Sgt. Brett Parsons, the DC Metro PD’s LGBT Liaison, with his lights flashing. He provided the TAVA bus with a police escort, even stopping a couple of times to direct traffic. The man became an instant hero to TAVA.

That day, TAVA not only made Transgender History, but they also made American History. The night before the March, they drew names of four people who would get the privilege of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, doing what no other openly transgender people have ever done. Just before three in the afternoon, the team of four, led by Stephanie Heck, TAVA’s Vice President, gathered at the Tomb’s guardroom to prepare for the ceremony. While there, one of the guards said he could not find the wreath, which sent the team into a panic. The Master Sergeant of the Guard did not appreciate the other guard’s lack of respect toward the TAVA members and ordered him to find the wreath. He had seen the wreath earlier, so he knew the guard had not looked very carefully in the back. When the guard went back and looked for the second time, the wreath miraculously appeared.

Then, the Master Sergeant of the Guard asked if the organization should be announced as “TAVA,” which is what appeared on the wreath, or the “Transgender American Veterans Association.” Heck asked him to announce the entire name. When the time came, they stepped out onto the top of the steps and the Master Sergeant of the Guards marched down the stairs and faced the crowd. “This wreath is being presented by the Transgender American Veterans Association.” Every LGBT person in the crowd cried, even some of those who have been an activist for transgender rights for the last few decades. For the first time in history, the word “transgender” had been spoken on those hallowed grounds.

The entire event went off without a hitch, with the exception of the wreath incident. Thanks to “Drill Sergeant” Brightfeather, they had one of the most well organized events in the transgender community’s history, as per several outside observers. They put on the same event in May of 2005, but only half the people showed up.

On July 20, 2004, TAVA received its 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status from the IRS, allowing it to apply for grants and large donations. TAVA’s goal of ensuring transgender veterans would be treated equally in the VA still drove its efforts, but now it had access to more assets.

In July of that year, Helms attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention as the first elected transgender person in Georgia and the South. Six other transgender people also attended the convention. Helms had an enormous chance to talk with politicians and staff members about the transgender veterans’ issues with the VA. At a meeting with Senator John Kerry’s representatives, they did not seem very interested in any transgender issues until Helms brought up the plight of transgender veterans at the VA. They wanted to hear more later, but John Kerry did not win the election.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, TAVA members saw transgender people being treated badly by relief organizations. TAVA did what it could by donating $500 to a fund set up to specifically to help LGBT victims of Katrina. Moved by this effort, one of TAVA’s members donated another $1000 to the same effort. This showed that in times of emergencies, TAVA would be there to help. It became one of the important centerpieces when TAVA began forming chapters in other states.

TAVA continued to grow and expand into areas that would help extend influence and provide it with more exposure. In 2005, TAVA began forming chapters across the country, thanks to Ann Marie Knittel, TAVA’s Chapters Director and BEAR Rodgers, the National Assistant Chapters Director. A chapter in Madison, WI became the first in June of 2006 and ones in Knoxville, TN and Millbury, MA officially became chapters in December of 2006. Twenty more locations across the country were on the verge of forming chapters as well. This gave TAVA growing pains, challenging it to find more ways to best serve the members while still focusing on reaching the organization’s goals.

Still a young organization, TAVA had become a respected and valued group in the transgender community and had proven its value in the rest of the queer community across the country. TAVA stood beside SLDN and AVER in their fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and stood with national transgender organizations with efforts to help advance equal rights for transgender and gender non-conforming people.

The move to create chapters became a major headache for the organization. Keeping track of the various chapters and their members took a lot of time and effort. Some chapters decided to do things their way and not include the national organization in their decisions. The TAVA board spent less and less time on national issues ad more on the chapters.

One individual became a problem when he had the chapters make him the primary person in each of their groups. This caused a lot of problems in the board’s communications with the chapters and misinformation about what the board had done. That person wanted to break the chapters away from the organization so he could run them himself, so he worked against the main mission and goals of the organization. It took a great deal of effort for various people to remove him from his position, but when he left, TAVA began to recover.

For the next four years after the first March to the Wall, TAVA spoke with legislators, VA people, members of other veterans’ organizations and LGBT organizations to see what could be done about changing the policy. The National Center for Transgender Equality, gave TAVA the most help over those years and placed transgender veterans and active duty service members on their list of important issues. They became educated in the needs of our veterans and made access to legislative offices much smoother. However, with all of that, TAVA made very little progress.

During this journey, transgender veterans constantly endured being ignored by gay and lesbian veterans and the organizations they belonged to. This became more intense during Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day, because many gay and lesbian writers would put out their yearly articles on why Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell needed to be repealed. In the articles they always said, “Gay and lesbian, gay and lesbian, gay and lesbian!” No matter how many times we reminded them that bisexual and transgender people have also been kicked out and harassed under DADT, they went on disregarding half of the minority population.

“DADT is about sexual orientation and not gender identity.” They forgot that bisexuality is also a sexual orientation and that the military was too ignorant and uninformed to distinguish a transgender person from a gay person. As TAVA and other proceeded to educate military leaders, they acted much better as time went on.

One major event took place that helped accelerate the introduction of this new VA policy. In November 2007, Angela stated, “If TAVA were to ever have our issues taken seriously, we needed a survey to show hard numbers about the problems facing our veterans and active duty service members.” The TAVA board created that survey and put it on a respected web site used for surveys. It ran from the middle of December 2007 to May 1, 2008.

In that time, eight hundred and twenty seven transgender veterans took the survey. The statistics and the amount of people taking the survey amazed the board. From May to July, the highly respected Palm Center in California correlated the information from the survey and put out a White Paper in August. In the entire time they worked on the White Paper, the raw data from the survey found its way into many articles, blogs and discussion groups. When the Palm Center finished, they also put out a press release, so the survey received a lot of attention in many places.

Another event that helped to move this process was the election of Barack Obama as President. His election untied the hands of many government agencies to look into making improvements, including the VA. From the conversations that TAVA leaders had with VA officials in the early part of 2009, they discovered that the VA had began looking into improving the treatment of transgender veterans since July 2008 and that the TAVA survey had caused them to begin this progress.

Toward the end of March 2009, TAVA officials heard from a reliable source that the VA had sent out a proposed draft of a policy that would help to improve the treatment of transgender veterans. The Phoenix VA received one of these drafts and passed it onto the transgender veterans’ support group in that facility. The VA wanted the transgender veterans to look over the draft and provide them feedback.

The draft the VA sent out looked terrible. TAVA saw bad definitions, horrible procedures and unnecessary assumptions about transgender and intersex people. TAVA quickly sent a copy to the people we had been communicating with a month earlier. They did not respond.

TAVA could not figure out why the VA would do such a thing. They sent this to about 100 transgender veterans across the country, each with their own idea on what the VA should do for them. They would get the opinions of 100 people, all different. This would really confuse the issue, causing nothing to get done. They needed to get a consistent response from a single source.

Why did they not send the draft to NCTE or TAVA? It was not like they could not find us. The Veterans Health Service (VHS) works totally independent of the other parts of the VA, including the parts that had those people we spoke with. If the VHS wanted to fix the problems they saw in the survey, it would have been more logical to reach out to TAVA, the source of the survey.

Then something happened in the VHS that sent it in the right direction. In late May 2009, they sent NCTE a much better draft of the VA policy, asking them to make suggested changes. Besides contacting TAVA, NCTE received the help of transgender lawyers, transgender doctors and therapists who worked for the VA, all to look over every part of the draft. We only had one chance to submit corrections, so we had to make them the best.

For one month, we sent emails back and forth, and talked on the telephone. As people can imagine, it did not run smoothly. We saw a difference of opinion on different sections, some so strong that the board of TAVA at one time seriously considered not supporting the new policy if these issues were not addressed. In the end, the issues were resolved, and recommendations went forward.

In late July, the VA sent TAVA the final draft that would become policy two months later, according to them. We did not have another chance to make any further suggestions, but we really did not need to.

This new policy’s existence had been a combined effort of those who started TAVA seven years earlier and served on its board. The people who suggested, wrote, revised and posted the TAVA survey helped to create this policy. The eight hundred and twenty seven transgender veterans who took the survey made this new policy possible. NCTE, lawyers, doctors, therapists and many others helped refine it to the best we could hope for. Of course, the VA also made this possible.

Deadlines came and passed. Over and over, the VA gave us a date when it would be released, but the policy never came out. Then, TAVA and others heard nothing at all. NCTE’s connections had all dried up. TAVA had been placed in limbo. The VA went silent.

Helms kept the issue on the forefront with articles on blogs and videos on the need for the new policy. It did no good. The Obama administration remained silent on the transgender veterans VA issues.

In December 2010, Congress voted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and President Obama signed the bill. LGB volunteers would begin to serve openly on September 20, 2011. However, this did not allow transgender people to serve openly in the military. DADT only covered sexual orientation and not gender identity, Brightfeather and Helms had argued with SLDN to add “gender identity” in the repeal language, but they did not want to mess with the chances of the repeal. No one knew it at the time, but transgender people would have to wait until January 2016 before they could serve openly.

The moment TAVA had been waiting for finally arrived on June 9, 2011. The VA released VHA Directive 2011-24, titled, “Providing Health for Transgender and Intersex Veterans.” However, the directive’s number changed over the years. Transgender veterans all over the country celebrated. Two days later, TAVA received emails from transgender veterans telling them that the Directive worked.

Eight and a half years from TAVA’s birth, it achieved the major goal of its Mission Statement. Many LGBT organizations go on for years without making a dent in their mission statements. Not only did TAVA reach its primary original goal, but it helped to improve the lives of many transgender veterans across the country. Other important issues still remained, such as changing the name on a DD-214, allowing the VA to do or pay for transgender surgeries, and to see transgender people serving openly in the military.

In January 2013, Monica Helms retired from TAVA and activism, making Angela Brightfeather the president.