It was one thing to hear members of her veterans organization use offensive language during casual conversations at the local post.
But after former American Legion post commander Lindsay Church hosted a leadership meeting at her home in Seattle and heard racial slurs used offhand and in official meeting notes, she decided enough was enough.
She resigned her position and in fall 2017 went on to co-found a new group for veterans like her, a gender-nonconforming lesbian, and others who have felt ostracized and out-of-place in more traditional, mainstream veterans groups.
“I’m tired of feeling different,” said Church, who was a linguist in the Navy from 2008 to 2012. “I just want to be a veteran, but I also want to recognize that other things play into my life.”
Minority Veterans of America, a new national nonprofit headquartered in Seattle, provides a safe, inclusive environment for all former service members, with a specific focus on giving a voice to LGBTQ veterans, veterans of color, religious minorities and women veterans.
Church describes it as “a flag for people to come together under” and an organization “built on the ideas and the energy of the people we serve.”
“Alone, we’re getting screwed,” she said. “Alone, nobody hears us.”
The organization, still in its infancy, has about 550 members and is growing. With a team of leaders in Seattle and elsewhere, Church hopes to have several chapters in cities across the country up and running in 2019. These will provide innovative programming for minority veterans, including help for military-induced trauma. The chapters will also help veterans access benefits, provide volunteer opportunities and, of course, host fun events and activities.
That’s perfect for Will Booth, a Gulf War-era Air Force veteran and Alaskan native, who said he’s struggled to fit in veteran organizations in the past.
“In the early years, when I came out (of the closet) — or accepted the reality, I should say — everything was still stereotypical old boys’ club,” said Booth, who helped draft the military’s former policy known as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” while in uniform. “You’ve got to fit this particular model. If you don’t fit this, don’t even bother walking through the front door.”
Besides, he doesn’t drink beer, which seems to be a popular activity at other vet groups' meeting houses, he said. He has also found some organizations to be too political for his liking.
When Booth heard about MVA, he was on board with the concept: “Really just be there for one another — not judge one another like a lot of the older organizations that are still working off of by-laws that were written in the 1920s,” he said. “Society’s changed.”
American Legion spokesman John Raughter said his organization has always been open to people of all races, religions and genders. Women could vote for the Legion’s national commander before they could vote for president of the United States, he noted.
“As an organization derived from the American people, we have faced many of the same challenges as society at large,” then-Legion National Commander Denise Rohan said in February statement. “Like all communities, we have posts that shine, and a few that have challenges. We are not perfect. ... I can unequivocally state that we reject discrimination in all of its forms. It is antithetical to who we are as Legionnaires, and I expect that every one of our members treat each other with the dignity and respect they deserve as veterans.”
Similarly, Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, another of the largest and oldest veterans groups, said the organization has diversity within its leadership ranks at the post, district, department national levels and disrespect of any kind is not tolerated.
“Regarding (MVA), we welcome them, and we hope we can work together to make things better for even more veterans, service members and their families in the future,” Davis said in an email.
Navy veteran Francheska Salazar is a legislative fellow with the VFW and speaks highly of her experiences within the organization and others, such as Student Veterans of America and The Mission Continues. But still, it can be difficult to break into the “all-boys club” at times, she said.
Even at the Veterans Affairs Department, she’s been asked if she’s the spouse.
“You try to break into those like, ‘Hey guys, I know that I haven’t been in the sandbox, but I still served my country, too.”
Kai River Blevins, a transgender and queer Army veteran, appreciates that MVA allows veterans from different backgrounds to come together, not only LGBTQ veterans.
People across all minority groups have experienced discrimination during their time in uniform “that we’re often told that we should get over … for the greater good, for unit cohesion, for morale. That experience is something that’s carried across minority groups," Blevins said.
Salazar said especially in today’s political climate, where LGTBQ citizens, Muslims and others may need extra protection, it’s important that a group like MVA exist.
“The bricks that people throw at us, we're going to build this foundation with,” she said. “I think the way that we build a foundation is by teaching others how we want to be treated and that we're here, that we were veterans, that we served our country honorably. We're here to make a difference. We're here to be seen. We're here to be heard. And we're here to be appreciated and respected. I think that's all that most human beings want.”
“We’re small,” she said. “But we’re mighty.”
Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.