By Greg Hernandez
More than 150 veterans attended the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s recent Stand Down, a twice-a-year resource fair organized by the Center’s Senior Services department.
“Our Stand Downs create a safe environment for all who served, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and connects them with peers and allies who have shared similar experiences during their service,” explains Yelba Carrillo, manager of social services for the department.
More than 30 organizations for veterans and seniors participated in the event, which provides free services and referrals including VA enrollment, CalVet benefits, VA benefits, education, housing, legal, employment, medical, and mental health.
The Stand Down included appearances by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Secretary of California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), Vito Imbasciani, and Center CEO Lorri L. Jean, among others.
“We all belong and that’s what this Stand Down is about,” Garcetti said during his remarks inside the Center’s Renberg Theatre. “We all belong. Folks who felt like they couldn’t say who they loved while they wore the uniform, you belong.”
Center Has Long Tradition of Helping Veterans
The Center currently offers a wide array of programming to nearly 500 veterans, including partnering with legal providers to make sure they receive their benefits.
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, which passed in 1993, barred gay and lesbian military personnel from serving openly. When the law was repealed in 2011, many service members who had been dishonorably discharged became eligible for benefits.
Others weren’t even aware that they were entitled to benefits or were afraid to seek them because they feared homophobia on the part of the military.
“Our Center has been serving veterans for nearly 50 years,” Jean said during her remarks at the Stand Down. “There should not be an LGBT veteran who’s struggling because they don’t have help and benefits that they need and deserve because they can come to us and we’ll help them get connected.”
“Without the Center, I wouldn’t be here.”
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve veteran William Duckworth spoke about how being gay resulted in his nearly 30-year military career being cut short. Not receiving the benefits he was entitled to led to his becoming homeless.
“I was really having a rough time,” Duckworth told his fellow veterans and others in the audience. “To be on the street at my age was really hard. I never really thought I was going to recover. I was having a hard time coming out. I never was able to be who I was.”
A little more than a year ago, Duckworth went online looking for housing assistance and discovered the Center, which connected him with Department of Veterans Affairs to access his benefits. He later landed a job with the Center’s senior services department.
“Without the Center, I wouldn’t be here and that’s the honest truth,” Duckworth said. “I’m proud to stand here. I have a roof over my head, I have a community that I belong to.”
Imbasciani spoke during the program about serving for nearly all of his 27-year military career as a closeted gay man. He was an Army surgeon who cared for sick, wounded and sometimes dying soldiers. He was deployed four times in support of wars in the Middle East beginning with Gulf War in 1991.
“I know what it was like to serve under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to off to war when there’s no one there to see you off or to welcome you home,” he shared. “All the while you are deployed never acknowledging or enjoying the presence and support of a family.”
That’s why, Imbasciani said, it was “really special” to ask his husband of more than a decade to stand up and wave to the audience.
“Until the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I just did,” he said to applause.
Garcetti pointed out that American history and such landmark events as the end of slavery, women’s right to vote, desegregation of schools, marriage equality, and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell seem so easy when read about in the history books.
“If you’ve been in the midst of that struggle, those words are written so slowly,” the mayor said. “Those paragraphs come so painfully until one day they are just there. You fought for this country. You fought for your own rights and all of our rights to be a free people.”
The Center’s newly-formed color guard, believed to be the first LGBT color guard ever to exist in the U.S., opened and closed the Stand Down. They will next be marching in Veteran’s Day parades in Long Beach and West Los Angeles.
The next Stand Down is scheduled for April 27, 2019.
For more information about the Center’s Senior Services, visit lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.