Veterans advocates and elected officials gathered on the steps of City Hall March 25 to protest looming budget cuts and remind the general public that President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender service members is not some federal issue in a faraway land — it’s a very real problem in our own backyard.
NYC Veterans Alliance president and founding director Kristen Rouse, who was joined by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America president John Rowan, and several other members of the veterans community, sent a strong message to elected officials that their causes are as important as any other ones — and they deserve attention now.
“We need to hear from city and state leaders that all service members matter,” Rouse said. “We need to hear that echo in City Hall and around the country.”
The advocates ripped proposed cuts to veterans-related programs at both the city and state levels. Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to trim $63,000 from the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS), while Governor Andrew Cuomo is aiming to slash $3.6 million in veterans-related initiatives. The potential cuts raise concerns in light of a number of crises affecting veterans, including worsening homelessness and higher suicide rates than the average population.
“When we talk about risk factors for suicide, LGBTQ veterans are at more risk than even all the other veterans at risk,” Rouse explained.
Brooklyn City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, who serves as chair of the City Council’s Veterans Committee and has been the subject of criticism for failing to lead on LGBTQ veterans issues, was glaringly absent, as were the rest of the members of that committee. Councilmembers Ben Kallos of Manhattan and Mark Gjonaj of the Bronx and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams were the only elected officials in attendance, and Williams, in particular tore into the transphobia that effects both active service members and veterans.
The newly elected public advocate described the trans ban as “appalling” and that it “pisses me off” that “the orange man in the White House ” and others in this country have continued to mistreat and discriminate against veterans who have put their lives on the line for the country.
Rouse stressed that the ban has a strong influence on the livelihoods of transgender service members because it also affects their loved ones. Transgender members of the military have also faced increased anxiety over their job security as the legality of the ban has been debated in federal courts and the Pentagon is poised to implement it even as lawsuits challenging it remain live.
“That all definitely impacts service members here in New York City,” Rouse explained. “Their spouses and partners, family members, and kids — this has a detrimental effect on their well-being and their mental health.”
Rouse attended meetings in City Council offices prior to the rally and said among the topics discussed included the possibility of city lawmakers introducing a resolution against the transgender ban.
“We’re talking with councilmembers about that and asking for their support,” she said. “We’re encouraging them to on the front and leading on this.”
Rouse and the NYC Veterans Alliance delivered a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson earlier this month asking him to step in and take action on LGBTQ veterans issues after Deutsch — a conservative Democrat who has repeatedly voted against queer rights — has continued to neglect them.
But Johnson did not directly respond to questions from Gay City News about how he would address the concerns surrounding Deutsch and his handling of issues facing LGBTQ veterans.
More than a week later, Rouse said Johnson has yet to provide a response to the letter.