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Salt Lake City VA program empowers transgender veterans to be their authentic selves

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A program offered at the Salt Lake City VA empowers and supports transgender veterans to be their authentic selves. Transgender veterans are 20 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than their cisgender counterparts.

According to its website, the Gender Identity Veteran Experience (GIVE) program offers specialized, culturally sensitive, competent, and gender-affirming medical, mental health, and daily living care for eligible transgender and intersex veterans.

“It’s really expensive to be transgender, gender non-conforming, or intersex. There’s a lot of barriers to people getting their care because mental health costs money, vocal coaching costs money, medical care cost money, and surgeries cost a lot of money,” said Breeze Hannaford, the program’s coordinator. 

She said many transgender individuals experience discrimination as a result of their gender identity, impacting their careers, mental health, and relationships.

“I would absolutely love for this community to be able to get their needs met. Whatever it is along their gender journey that they need to feel whole and complete, I would like for that to be available to them,” said Hannaford.

Currently, transgender individuals are not allowed to openly serve in the military. But Hannaford explained the VA is a separate agency, providing health care to veterans after they leave the military and doesn’t share the same policies.

“Transgender veterans are a traditionally underserved population. Our motto is to serve all who have served and to be conscientious and culturally competent in providing that service,” said Hannaford. “The Salt Lake VA is the only hospital in the state with the distinction of being healthcare quality index leaders through the Human Rights Campaign, which is something we’re very proud of.”

Tisha Olsen, a transgender veteran, said the program saved her life.

“For a long time, I felt like I was on an island all by myself, that I was the only person dealing with this issue. I felt very alone and very disconnected from the world,” she said. “I attempted suicide five times because I figured death was better than what I was feeling.”

Olsen said she knew since she was six years ago that she wanted to be a girl, but concealed her gender identity for 22 years while serving as a Marine and working on suicide missions.

“I was in the military before the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and I had friends who were discharged other than honorable or dishonorably just because of their sexuality,” said Olsen. “I was always worried if somebody outed me that I would lose my career immediately.”

With the encouragement of her wife, she sought help from the Salt Lake City VA’s GIVE Program after retiring. Now, she’s a proud transgender woman.

“I started to be honest, open, and authentic with myself. I’ve lost a lot of friends along the way, but I’ve also gained a lot of new ones too,” she said. “I think if I could’ve been myself while I was serving, I would have been a heck of a lot better of a Marine.”

Jacalyn Lawler had a similar experience to Olsen’s, identifying as non-binary but having to conform to the military’s gender roles. For three years, they served as a Munitions Systems Journeyman, specializing in smart bombs and guided missiles. 

“The military culture is very strongly divided along gender lines and even just those three years…living up to the cultural expectations of being a female in the military did a lot to my self-esteem,” they said.

Lawler is part of the 19 percent who leave the military to avoid mistreatment because of their gender identity.

“I separated because of a suicide attempt that was directly related to my inability to be myself and defend myself,” they said. “My entire military service turned into a dissociative experience. Being treated as a military female led to contentment, discomfort, frustration, and fear. If everyone could serve as their authentic self and believe they’re safe, they could actually focus on their job.”

Now, both Olsen and Lawler serve as peer support specialists at the Salt Lake City VA, giving back to the program that they credit for saving their lives.

“I want to try to help the next veteran that doesn’t know where to go or have a place to turn to. I want them to know that they’re not alone,” said Olsen. “We are who we are and being able to live authentically helps you be a better person.”

As they honored the victims who lost their lives this year to anti-transgender violence in a Transgender Remembrance Day event at the VA last Friday, Olsen and Lawler shared their stories with ABC4 News. They said their intention is to create more visibility, awareness, and understanding of the LGBTQ community.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But just remember, me and everybody else in the military put our life on the line so you could have that opinion,” said Olsen. “You don’t have to like me. You don’t even have to understand me, but you don’t have to hate me either.”

“They’re amazing, They’re some of the most incredible people on the planet. I hope they see their bright futures the same way I do,” said Hannaford.

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