WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to offer transgender veterans gender confirmation surgery, Secretary Denis McDonough announced at a Pride Month event in Orlando Saturday.
McDonough said in prepared remarks that the move was "the right thing to do," and that it was part of an effort to overcome a "dark history" of discrimination against LGBTQ service members. The move is just the first step in what's likely to be a yearslong federal rulemaking process to expand VA health benefits to cover the surgery, but McDonough said the VA will use the time to "develop capacity to meet the surgical needs" of transgender veterans.
The decision, he said, will allow "transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side." McDonough also referenced what he said were higher rates of mental illness and suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ veterans, and a fear of discrimination that prevents those veterans from seeking care.
"We're making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives," he said.
McDonough said the decision was based on the "recommendation of our clinicians, so this is a health care decision that has very real physical health care impacts as well as significant mental health impacts."
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans and over 15,000 transgender individuals serving in the military today.
McDonough's announcement is the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to expand protections and benefits to transgender individuals in the military.
Just days into his term, President Joe Biden signed an executive order overturning a Trump administration ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. And in February, McDonough ordered a review of the department's policies to "ensure that transgender Veterans and employees do not face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity and expression."