The out lesbian leader of a New York City-based veterans advocacy group has delivered a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asking him to address concerns that Veterans Committee Chair Chaim Deutsch has failed to lead on issues pertaining to LGBTQ veterans.
The letter signed by the NYC Veterans Alliance president and founding director Kristen Rouse was sent one week after Gay City News first reported the frustrations some LGBTQ veterans have voiced regarding what they see as Deutsch’s hostility toward queer community needs.
In the letter, obtained exclusively by Gay City News, Rouse said that Deutsch, a Brooklyn councilmember, has neglected his duties on LGBTQ inclusion, as evidenced by his extensive history of anti-gay votes and alleged homophobic comments to her; avoids working with the out lesbian commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services (DVS), Loree Sutton; and does not do enough to address mental health issues surrounding LGBTQ veterans.
“It is the position of the NYC Veterans Alliance that Chaim Deutsch as the Chair of the NYC Council’s Committee on Veterans must demonstrate a clearer intention to serve each member of the city’s diverse veterans community with equality and respect,” Rouse wrote. “LGBTQ veterans must receive fairer treatment by Chair Deutsch.”
Even as the NYC Veterans Alliance stepped up its criticism of Deutsch, SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, told Gay City News that a group of LGBTQ veterans affiliated with it “has developed a positive working relationship with” the Brooklyn lawmaker.
But Rouse, who previously pointed out that Deutsch treated Sutton differently from other officials appearing before the committee, added in her March 13 letter to Johnson that she has learned that meetings between Deutsch and Sutton have been “unconstructive” and stressed that the chair needs to “move beyond any personal bias to work constructively and respectfully with Commissioner Sutton in his critical leadership role.”
Rouse underscored her problem with Deutsch’s handling of suicide and mental health, which she believes was particularly revealing at a February 26 hearing on suicide where, she said, he spent a great deal of time “grandstanding” about the city’s mental health program, ThriveNYC, only a small fraction of whose money goes to DVS.
“We expect more from a citywide leader,” Rouse wrote. “We need Chair Deutsch to demonstrate leadership to protect the mental health of all veterans throughout our city, and irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender.”
Rouse had recently recalled a time when she said Deutsch, a conservative Democrat, told her that he and his constituents in southern Brooklyn oppose same-sex marriage, but in the letter she further said he also told her “that he cannot be seen supporting the equality of LGBTQ individuals, even if they are veterans.”
Johnson, who has previously declined to directly criticize Deutsch for his track record of homophobia, did not directly respond to questions about how he plans to address concerns in the letter or whether he even acknowledges that there are problems with the way the Brooklyn councilmember has handled LGBTQ veterans matters. Instead, he broadly touched on queer issues in the veterans community.
“Our city’s veterans — including LGBTQ veterans — deserve gratitude and respect commensurate with the sacrifices they have made to defend our country,” the out gay speaker said in a written statement on March 15. “They deserve the best and there must be zero tolerance for disrespect or discrimination of any kind. Neither I nor this Council will tolerate unequal treatment of anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Rouse said she was heartened to see Johnson reiterating a commitment to nondiscrimination and equal treatment, but noted that it was what she expected — and she doesn’t want it coming only from the speaker.
“We want that kind of statement from the chair of the veteran’s committee,” Rouse said. “That is the kind of leadership we want.”
Among other concerns raised in Rouse’s letter was Deutsch’s glaring absence from a November hearing on a proposed measure directing DVS to assist veterans booted from the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in upgrading the status of their discharge. That bill has not yet been brought to the Council floor for a vote, but in the meantime, Sutton said during a March 14 hearing, the agency does not turn away any veterans discharged due to sexual orientation, length of service, “or any other identifier.”
Since Gay City News published its first story on the NYC Veterans Alliance’s criticism of Deutsch on March 5, he appears to have scrambled to schedule meetings with veterans groups and patch up negative public perception about his work on those issues. He published several Twitter posts detailing his meetings with groups such as SAGEVets, which is a program geared toward older LGBTQ adults who served in the military.
According to SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa, in Deutsch’s recent meeting with SAGEVets program coordinator Ashton Stewart the pair discussed “how the councilmember can continue to deepen his commitment to LGBT older veterans and how SAGE and our SAGEVets program can partner with him to ensure that our city can better meet the needs of older LGBT veterans.”
Da Costa, who described “a positive working relationship” between SAGEVets and Deutsch, said the councilmember has asked the group to present on LGBTQ veterans issues at Council hearings, invited them “to meet with other veteran service providers, and has sought ways for the city to be supportive of our SAGEVets program and LGBT older veterans.”
Rouse pointed out that Deutsch’s tweet about meeting with SAGE made no mention of the LGBTQ community, and she stressed that his pattern of refusing to explicitly mention LGBTQ veterans in public statements is especially disturbing in light of news that the military is now prepared to implement its ban on transgender service members.
“This is a very real thing that is affecting New York veterans taking in that news as well as folks in the reserve and guard who are concerned whether they can remain in or not,” Rouse said. “New York needs to lead on this situation. Where is the leadership that we see when something happens nationally? The chair of the Veterans Committee has said nothing.”
Sutton said during the March 14 hearing that her team at DVS also recently met with SAGEVets to explore ways the agency and the organization could build their partnership.
DVS confirmed to Gay City News earlier this month that Deutsch had primarily interacted with the agency only in hearings, but it did not respond to an inquiry about whether the chair has made any attempts in recent weeks to increase communication.