For centuries, LGBTQ Americans who wanted to join the country's armed forces, had to do so in silence -- a revelation about their sexual orientation could mean a dishonorable discharge, or worse. And if they were lucky enough to finish their service without being found out, they still often dealt with the prospect of homelessness, just like their straight counterparts.
Though times have changed, with the Obama administration permitting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members to wear their country’s uniform openly and proudly, the post-service issues faced by LGBTQ veterans have changed little. One out Army veteran, keenly aware of these challenges, has set out to address them.
“I saw the need for vets from our [LGBTQ] community to have safe, supportive housing of their own,” said Dr. Remolia Simpson, CEO of My Brothers House, a Pennsylvania nonprofit providing housing and counseling services to veterans nationwide.
With help from agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs and other veterans’ support groups, Simpson and My Brothers House are setting up an exclusively-LGBTQ veterans’ residence in Philadelphia’s "Gayborhood."
“Given that [straight] veterans, especially older ones, aren’t comfortable sharing living spaces with gay vets, we decided to take a different approach," Simpson told NBC OUT. “It’s important that our residents feel welcomed, and find themselves in a friendly environment."
Simpson, 52, is a six-year Army veteran who served as a company supply sergeant from 1982 until 1988. Working in medical and military police units, she was stationed in such locales as South Korea and Germany. “Serving in the Army was a great experience,” she recalled with a smile, “but I got out before I got outed.”
As more and more LGBTQ people join the ranks of those defending our country, Simpson sees the need to ensure their well-being once they return home. “Homelessness still ranks right up there as one of the top problems vets face after service ... and for [LGBTQ] veterans, it’s even harder.”
The LGBT House, which is set to open in June 2017, is just part of Simpson's broader overall strategy to get veterans off the streets. And recognizing that some may need other assistance while living at My Brothers House facilities, the organization also offers short-term, faith-based counseling services.
There are a number of organizations, like American Vets for Equal Rights, working to help LGBTQ veterans once they finish their service, but Simpson believes an LGBTQ residence is crucial.
“This way, we know [the residents] will be safe and among ‘family,'” she said, using a colloquialism for the LGBTQ community. “We want to welcome all our brothers and sisters home,” Simpson emphasized, “so that homelessness isn’t a battle they need to fight. All veterans matter.”
Full disclosure: Nathan James is a volunteer at My Brother’s House.