Chapters from all over the country of the American Veterans for Equal Rights will gather in Denver the weekend of Sept. 20 to evaluate LGBT rights and shortfalls for military members.
“I’m very excited,” said Marine Sgt. Eric Alva, keynote speaker for the event. “I’ve never been to an AVER national conference. There’s a lot that’s going to come from this.”
Alva was the first American service member to be wounded in the Iraq war. On the first day of the invasion in March of 2003, Alva lost his right leg and suffered permanent injuries to his right arm after triggering a landmine. He was awarded the Purple Heart and medically discharged.
Alva kept his sexual orientation a secret from the public until 2007 when he began advocating for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, testifying as a wounded warrior before the House Armed Service Committee. He also returned to college. “I believe, even my mom said it, everything happens for a reason, because I decided to major in social work.”
Speaking at colleges around the nation, Alva attributed the repeal of DADT to the younger generation of voters and advocates.
“We have great activists at universities here in San Antonio,” he said. “There are gay-straight alliances in high schools having discussions about diversity. I graduated high school in ’89. Back then, we didn’t have all that.”
AVER itself played a large role in the 2010 repeal of DADT.
“We work to help veterans access their benefits,” said AVER president Danny Ingram. “And in the case of LGBT veterans and servicemembers, we’ve been working almost 25 years just for the right to serve and to access the same benefits as other active duty service members.”
Ingram testified in May before the United Civil Rights Commission on how the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited LGBT service members from accessing benefits afforded to married service members.
“We’re working on a bill right now,” Ingram said, “that has just been introduced in Congress that would streamline the discharge the upgrade process.”
The Restore Honor to Service Members Act is a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for service members discharged for being gay to upgrade their discharge status, a process that can take years or even decades.
“Anything that was a less-than-honorable discharge would result in veterans not having access to benefits,” Ingram said. “We have a lot of people who are getting older and would like to have access to the VA [Veterans Affairs] and the other benefits.”
Ingram aims for the convention to advance progress already being made. “We have a master plan to develop a national LGBT resource center that would help our veterans get access to their services with the VA and help the VA develop programs for LGBT veterans.”
Denver hosted the AVER convention twice before in 1998 and 2000. John Kelly, President of the AVER Rocky Mountain Chapter, has been the Convention Chair for every Denver national conference.
“Because of the changes in the last couple of years with the repeal of DADT and now the repeal of DOMA, things are moving fast,” Kelly said. “But the battle is not completely over. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Both Ingram and Kelly emphasized it is AVER’s priority to change the military policy regarding transgender service members who a barred from military service. In addition, Ingram stated it was wrong for the Military Equal Opportunity Program as well as the VA’s Center for Minority Veterans to not recognize LGBT service members as a protected class.
“Once all the rights have been gained, assuming they eventually will be,” said Kelly, “then it’s a matter of helping to assist those veterans, and active duty as well, making sure those rights are in enforced and that they know how to get them.”
Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith recorded a video presentation from Washington D.C. addressing convention attendees. Smith became the first openly gay flag officer in August 2012 when she was promoted.
Representatives from the American Military Partners Association and the Military Partners and Family Coalition will also be in attendance. Both organizations were founded by Smith’s wife, Tracey Hepner.
Dr. Leigh Anderson, Chief Medical Officer for the Veteran Integrated Service Networks 19, will also speak as a representative of the VA. In addition, the AVER Rocky Mountain Chapter Color Guard, the only full regulation LGBT color guard in the nation, will be presenting colors at the formal banquet.
Alva continues his advocacy work and made national news recently after speaking at a San Antonio city council meeting in support of an LGBT non-discrimination bill. He was booed and hissed at by opponents during his testimony.
“My initial reaction was shock and anger. It was disappointing and hurtful,” Alva said. “I believe, watching the scope of LGBT rights continuing to be fought in this country — plus the negative rhetoric — that that is what keeps me motivated, speaking to people about the truth and the diverse population of every person in this country.”
Disclosure: Mike Yost is a member of the AVER Rocky Mountain Chapter.