SALEM — Oregon is home to a diverse veteran community, spanning five eras of service and four generations. In fact, one out of 14 Oregonians is a veteran — and their stories, full of pride and honor, are just as varied as the veterans themselves.
This includes the estimated 6 percent of Oregon veterans who identify as LGBTQ+, many of whom served under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. Many were forced to serve in silence, hiding a core part of their identity in a way that was never required of their straight brothers and sisters in arms. Others were discharged due to “homosexual conduct.”
Oregon has long recognized the unique needs of the LGBTQ+ community and has worked diligently to address and protect those needs, and ODVA is no exception. In 2016, Oregon became the first state in the nation to create the position of LGBTQ veteran coordinator to assist, support and advocate for the state’s LGBTQ+ veterans.
In another landmark diversity move last year, Governor Kate Brown appointed new ODVA Director Kelly Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is the first woman to head the department in its 75-year history, and as a lesbian, also the first to be openly LGBTQ.
Fitzpatrick served in the U.S. Army from 1980-1996, and saw the rise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’
“It was absolutely illegal to be openly gay during the entire period of my military service,” she said. “So now, it’s wonderful that Pentagon allows gay and lesbian service members to serve openly, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs has begun to address the unique needs of LGBTQ veterans. And I’m honored to be the director of a state department of veterans’ affairs that has a full-time LGBTQ veterans coordinator.”
Through advocacy and outreach, the LGBTQ veteran coordinator’s office at ODVA works to build a strong community of, and for, LGBTQ+ veterans. A large part of that work is ensuring LGBTQ+ veterans aren’t outed every time they seek military benefits.
Enter Nathaniel Boehme, the ODVA’s first person serving in this special role. Boehme, who is gay, lives with his partner in Portland, and served in the closet for a majority of his service. He’s a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and is still serving in Oregon’s Air National Guard. Enlisting shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001, he served in Iraq with Operation Iraqi Freedom, and during Saddam Hussein’s trial for crimes against humanity and genocide.
“Folks in both communities, the veteran serving community and the LGBTQ community have been really, really supportive,” said Boehme. “People are entitled to their own opinions, we continue to move forward and we continue to do what we know is right.”
“I like to say that I am the benefactor of zeitgeist, and the spirit of the times, because truly I didn’t work to create this position,” said Boehme. “I am the benefactor of the amazing work of the folks who advocated for this position, Senator Gelser and Governor Brown helped build support so this position could happen, and could be welcomed.”
In many ways, the LGBTQ veteran coordinator serves a role similar to other veteran service officers, helping veterans connect to federal and state benefits, such as VA health care, disability compensation and pension, homelessness resources and more. But the LGBTQ veteran service officer is also equipped to assist with upgrading the status of veterans who were given an other-than-honorable discharge under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and with other military records corrections (name changes, etc.).
Boehme’s office also serves a critical role in advocating, connecting and building community within the Oregon LGBTQ veteran population.
“I have been very impressed in Oregon with the level of support for veterans,” Fitzpatrick said. “From the Governor, on down to the average person on the street, at the county level, we see it across the board.”
Contact the LGBTQ Veterans Coordinator Nathaniel Boehme at (503) 373-2327 (office) or (971) 720-9016 (cell) or [email protected]