Serving All Who Served: An Analysis of the VA's Visual and Digital Rhetorics for Welcoming Sexual and Gender Minority Veterans Into VA Care

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
AuthorE. Ashley Hall,Jennifer Ware,Christina Puntasecca
doi: 10.1002/wmh3.321
© 2019 Policy Studies Organization
Serving All Who Served: An Analysis of the VAs Visual
and Digital Rhetorics for Welcoming Sexual and Gender
Minority Veterans Into VA Care
Christina Puntasecca , E. Ashley Hall , and Jennifer Ware
Nearly one million veterans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)and could be
eligible for services provided by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Historical
criminalization of service members prior to and during the Dont Ask Dont Tell policy created social
and cultural barriers to LGBT veterans seeking VA care. To date, no studies have assessed the
implementation of the VAs efforts to create a welcoming environment for LGBT veterans. This study
fills that gap by using rhetorical genre studies to analyze how official websites position and
address LGBT veterans. Our results indicate that rhetorical and discursive strategies deployed on the
VAMC web sites betray information asymmetries reflecting varying levels of ambition and com-
mitment to inclusion of LGBT veterans. With a focus on techne, we conclude with researchbased
recommendations for VA practitioners, administrators, and policymakers to improve patientprovider
communication through public digital rhetorics.
KEY WORDS: LGBT, veteran, genre theory
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)estimates that there are as many as
one million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)veterans in the United
States who are currently eligible for health care through the VA (VA San Francisco
Healthcare System, 2018). LGBT people have served their country with honor and
dignity since the earliest days of our nations founding, but the military has not
historically been a welcoming environment for LGBT service members
. Indeed, the
U.S. military has officially excluded LGBT people since the beginning; Lieutenant
Gotthold Frederick Enslin was dismissed on March 11, 1778, for homosexuality. In
the early decades of the twentieth century, men could be declared unfit for service
based on feminine characteristicsor sexual perversion.Even in the midst of the
Second World War, homosexual proclivitieswere considered a disqualifying
condition for the selective service draft. According to the Department of Defense
(DoD, 1982)Directive 1332.14, which was originally issued on January 16, 1981, and
reissued with updates in 1993 and 2008, homosexuality is incompatible with
military service; the directive established mandatory discharge as the penalty for
service members who are found to have engaged in, [have] attempted to engage
in, or [have] solicited another to engage in a homosexual act(Key Dates in U.S.
Military LGBT Policy, 2018).
It was not until the 1993 institution of the controversial DoD (1993)policy
1304.26, commonly known as Dont Ask, Dont Tell(DADT), that harassment or
investigation of closeted LGB service members was officially prohibited; those
limited protections did not extend to transgender service members, because the
policy covered only sexual orientation, not gender identity. While DADT relaxed
the previous strict prohibitions, it did not legalize homosexuality in the military or
allow LGBT service members to serve openly. Service members who exhibited or
engaged in behaviors that did not conform to heterosexual scripts or gender norms
remained vulnerable to investigation and subject to possible discharge (Bateman,
2004; Burrelli, 2011). They were also especially vulnerable to harassment, for
reporting harassment required that they out themselves, automatically violating
the DADT policy and opening themselves up to possible disciplinary action.
LGB service members can now openly serve in all branches of the U.S. military.
Transgender service members may serve, with certain limitations (Mattis, 2017),
but the question of whether they may serve openly is the subject of ongoing liti-
gation (Doe v. Trump, 2018; Stone v. Trump, 2017; Karnoski v. Trump, 2018;
Stockman v. Trump, 2018). This ongoing litigation challenges the August 2017
Presidential Memorandum, which reversed the 2015 memorandum from Secretary
of Defense Ash Carter that officially accepted transgender service members (Carter,
2016; Mattis, 2017).
After the recent official recognition of sexual minority service members, studies
have begun to examine the cultural, physical, and mental health experiences of
LGBT service members and veterans, including the mental health impacts of the
militarys long tradition of official exclusion and the resulting physical and verbal
harassment. For example, one study found that LB women in the military con-
sistently experience sexual assault and harassment at higher rates than their het-
erosexual counterparts (Lehavot & Simpson, 2014), and that these events were
correlated with higher than average rates of PostTraumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD)and depression. Another study indicated that lesbian service members felt a
persistent fear of disclosure and noted that even postDADT, many assimilated into
heteronormative military cultural expectations (Mount, Steelman, & Hertlein,
2015). Sexual minority veterans have higher rates of PTSD, anxiety, substance
abuse, suicide (Blosnich, Bossarte, & Silenzio, 2012; Blosnich, Foynes, & Shipherd,
2013; Cochran, Balsam, Flentje, Malte, & Simpson, 2013), sleep disorders, and
obesity (Blosnich et al., 2013)than their heterosexual counterparts.
DADT was repealed in 2011 (Obama, 2011). Throughout the policy changes
affecting active duty service members, the VA continued to provide services for all
LGBT veterans, including transgender veterans (Kauth et al., 2014), who still face
restrictions on their ability to serve on active duty (Mattis, 2018). In the wake of the
repeal of DADT, the VA released a fiveyear strategic plan (Diversity and Inclusion
Strategic Plan: FY 20122016)that acknowledged sexual minorities for the first time.
In section one (Provide Veterans Personalized, Proactive, PatientDriven Health
Care), subsection E (Quality and Equity)of the VHA Goals and Objectives
Puntasecca et al.: Serving All Who Served 441

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