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About this episode
In this episode (Season 4, Episode 2), co-hosts Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch talk with Cathy Marcello about the challenges faced by military families with LGBTQ+ youth and all of us can do to support those families. Cathy leads the MilPride program for the Modern Military Association of America, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ military and veteran non-profit.
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Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. Here to start the conversation are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Jessica Beckendorf: Hello, everyone. It’s so great to have you join us today. I’m Jessica Beckendorf.
Bob Bertsch: I’m Bob Bertsch. In this episode we’re going to be talking about supporting military families with LGBTQ youth. Our guest today is Cathy Marcello. Cathy leads the MilPride Program for the Modern Military Association of America, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ military and veteran nonprofit. Welcome to Practicing Connection, Cathy.
Cathy Marcello: Hi. Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Bob: We’re excited for our conversation today and to hear more about the work that you do. Why don’t we start there? How did you personally come to your work supporting LGBTQ military families?
Cathy: Well, the short version is that last year I completed a Hiring Our Heroes: Military Spouse Fellowship at Modern Military, and was lucky enough to be hired on as a program director after that internship. The longer version, and why I was interested in working at Modern Military, is that for the past 13 years I’ve quietly been advocating for transgender youth within the military system, because 13 years ago I became the parent of a transgender youth. I ended up finding myself in the role of full-time ally back then.
13 years ago I basically had to guide everyone we interacted with, from friends, families and neighbors to institutions like schools, doctors, TRICARE, the military in general on best practices for transgender youth, because in most cases my child was the first transgender youth that those people were encountering. Fast-forward 13 years, my child is all grown up, they’re an adult, and my spouse is retired, so I finally felt like it was the time to work professionally in the advocacy world so that hopefully, no other family would go through some of the challenges that we faced back then, and certainly so that they wouldn’t be alone when they were going through it.
Jessica: It sounds like you were dealing with many challenges. I’m wondering, I know probably every family is just a little bit different,- but from your perspective and your experiences, what challenges are military families with LGBTQ youth facing?
Cathy: I would start by saying that we all know that military kids, in general, don’t have it easy. We’re talking about frequent moves, new schools, long absences of a parent, worrying about your deployed parent when they’re at war, and when they’re home, often living through their PTSD. There’s a lot that military kids live with. Now, when we add in being an LGBTQ youth, we find that those factors are compounded. Last year, the Trevor Project published the results of their national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. It was such a large study that they actually had a subset of military kids that they were able to get statistics on.
What they found out was that having a parent currently in the military was associated with a significantly higher risk of mental health challenges. 17% higher odds of anxiety, and for those youth specifically under 18 that was 34% higher. 14% higher of considering suicide and a 40% higher risk of attempting suicide in the past year. LGBTQ youth in the military are facing some significant mental health concerns. What’s going on there? Last year there was an unprecedented 325 anti-LGBTQ laws proposed. This year, just a couple of weeks into the legislative session, were over 300. 43% of active duty troops are stationed in those states. The kids are seeing this, they’re feeling those stressors and their families are feeling those stressors. Think of a military family in general, and it’s PCS season and you’re thinking about getting your orders.
Our families are thinking about, “Will my child have access to healthcare in that state? Will my child be able to play sports in that state? Will I be a child abuser in that state because they’ve introduced new laws that make supporting trans youth not legal? Is that going to jeopardize my security clearance? What happens if my child talks about having two moms in class? Is that going to be a problem?” There’s just a lot of stressors that other families might not be thinking about that our families have to go through.
Jessica: Just for the sake of anyone who wouldn’t know this, I just wanted to mention that, I don’t want to interrupt our flow, but the PCS is Permanent Change of Station.
Cathy: Oh, sorry, I fall into that lingo so naturally.
Jessica: It’s completely okay. I wanted to make sure we outlined that. I really didn’t want to interrupt our flow. Sorry about that.
Bob: I was just thinking about what you’re saying, Cathy. One of the things, really, whenever any of us are facing challenges and need to rely on our resilience, our communities of support are really important and Permanent Change of Station is a challenge. How did your family deal with that, or how did that challenge come forward for you, moving from place to place when you’re having a child who’s trying to go through transition?
Cathy: That is a great question. Actually, in our case, my husband was deployed in a combat zone. You know how trauma brain works? I don’t even know if it was Afghanistan or Iraq. I just know he was on a deployment and our child had– We had finally identified, there had been problems, there had been mental health concerns, and we had really just identified that our very young child is transgender. We had just gotten them in with a therapist. It was getting near the end of my husband’s deployment and he was talking to Branch, and Branch said, “Well, listen, can’t help you. Everybody has their sob story. Your family needs to move, and these are your options.” For us, those options are not great.
In our case, my husband ended up sacrificing his career. He changed what he was doing within the military so that we would have more amenable duty stations in the future, and also so that at that particular moment in time we did not have to move. We were able to stabilize our child for a few years so that they could finish this relationship with their therapist, have those sessions, and then go through a transition at the school and make it work. For us, that was the best scenario for our family and was really beneficial. I ended up with a happy, healthy, well-rounded, completely average child, love them to death. Now, in my work at MilPride, I’m seeing that families are still making those hard choices to this day. Are we going to separate for a year? Are we all going to move? Can we afford to skip this duty station? Things like that.
Bob: How does MilPride help with those, not necessarily those specific challenges, but just the challenges that military families with LGBTQ youth face?
Cathy: Well, this is the happy part of the story. We offer a online community of support. I think everybody knows that military spouse hive mind knowledge. If you ask, some military spouse is going to have an answer. This same is true when we focus down on the LGBTQ military community. In our online community you have unlimited access to all our communal knowledge of what’s a great base, what’s a good school, who’s a really supportive doctor in that town, how long is the wait list at that clinic, that kind of information. Also, I’m always posting very LGBTQ-specific resources for families.
We help them navigate some of the more complicated issues they face when dealing with EFMP or a compassionate reassignment or TRICARE. We let them know what the policies are and how they can navigate them effectively. EFMP is Exceptional Family Member Program. See, caught me with another acronym, sorry about that.
Bob: Another acronym. That’s all right. We all have our acronyms at our various jobs. It’s really interesting when it comes together, our work with OneOp brought academia and cooperative extension, which have all their acronyms together with DOD and the military. We’re used to the alphabet soup, definitely, here.
Jessica: Sometimes I make up my own words for the acronyms just to help me remember what the acronyms are. Anyway.
Cathy: I forgot to mention, we just partnered with PFLAG. PFLAG is an organization for friends, family members and loved ones of LGBTQ people, and we partnered with them on their Community Connects program to create a military community support group. It’s a nationwide, virtual support group exclusive to military families, where they can share and find support and learn about being the parent of an LGBTQ child. Participants are vetted, so it’s a safe and secure place for families. You can have your camera off if you want so that you feel comfortable sharing. Facilitators are trained military spouses or service members themselves there to help guide the meetings. I just wanted to make sure I let people know that’s another resource we provide.
Jessica: That’s awesome. You’ve brought up a few of these examples already, but I think what is really interesting to me is where we might be able to strengthen the support for military families with LGBTQ youth, both from the military service provider’s abilities to support and from civilians, because you mentioned a couple of resources that you forward out to people that are available to families. From your point of view, how can we strengthen support from both of these areas, on the military service provider side and on the civilian side?
Cathy: The most important thing I want everyone listening to know is that The Trevor Project study found that having one supportive adult in an LGBTQ youth’s life reduced suicides by 40%. You, sitting at home, as an individual can impact every single person’s life by just being kind, just being supportive. It can happen on that one-on-one level, you can have an impact. I just want everybody to know that. Just being a kind, supportive person can actually make a difference. On a larger level, when we’re talking about service providers, I would say knowing things like using preferred names and pronouns, not everybody’s going to have their documents updated.
If you’re working with an LGBTQ person it’s important to ask. It’s not a big deal. It can be a casual conversation, “Oh, what name would you prefer?” Things like that. Having cultural competency about some of the terminology can make the person you’re interacting with feel more comfortable. Understanding the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. They are not the same. Focusing on health outcomes, not what’s inside a person’s pants. I always like to use the emergency room example, and every LGBTQ person you interact with, if you ask them, “Tell me an emergency room story,” they would tell you a time when they went to the doctor or the emergency room and the focus became about their sexual identity or their gender identity instead of the broken arm they were there for or the fever.
Really didn’t have anything to do with those other things, but it can become something that people fixate on when it’s not necessarily the issue that they’re there for. That said, something else to think about is the health disparities associated with minority communities and to remember that there can be different health disparities and so to focus on certain things when you are working with LGBTQ people. It’s a fine line. I would obviously recommend the upcoming one-off webinar to know how to navigate that fine line.
Jessica: I wonder if we were to think about the ways that military service providers and non-military community members, like educators, community leaders, you mentioned also hospitals, maybe people who work at hospitals. Are there ways that you see that we can work together with each other to further support?
Cathy: That’s a great question. I would just say making sure that you’re being culturally competent when you’re interacting with the LGBTQ community, being inclusive. When it’s Pride Month, seeing a display can really make people feel welcome and then they know it’s an inclusive environment. I had a friend who was stationed overseas, feeling alone, and they walked into their library one day and it was Trans Day of Visibility. They thought no one on earth knew that besides them. The local librarian had set up a display from adult books to children’s books that were trans-inclusive. It stuck with them so much that they were telling me this story yesterday when I was speaking to them. Little things like that where communities can show support can really make a big difference.
Bob: Cathy, can you talk about some of the other resources that Modern Military Association of America has for families? We’ve talked about the MilPride program but I think there are a lot of other resources that are offered especially for LGBTQ+ military service members themselves. Can you share some of what the association works on?
Cathy: Yes, absolutely. One of the first things is I would say to check out our quarterly magazine. It is award-winning. We’ve had an amazing editor there who puts together a great product. You can find stories of service members doing their thing while also being LGBTQ and breaking barriers and it’s really great to see. We’re going to have an upcoming issue where you’ll be able to hear my story that I talk about and the challenges that we went through within the military. I would just check out our magazine on our website.
Next, we are about to republish our Freedom to Serve Guide. After Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed people didn’t know, how can I be an out service member and navigate being in the military where previously it was not allowed? A previous iteration of Modern Military created the Freedom to Serve Guide. It was a guide for LGBTQ service members that was a comprehensive overview of laws, policies and practices relevant to their military service, practical information for how to navigate DOD. Laws changed, so we’re about to publish the most updated version, and that’s actually going to include things that apply to LGBTQ family members, so not just the service members. That’s a really helpful resource.
Then one of the other big things we do is help people with reversing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell discharges. People who were kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, often those discharges were less than honorable, and so they don’t have access to veterans benefits, they can’t get a VA loan, through no fault of their own. This happened to thousands of people and thousands, of those people have not had their discharges upgraded. Helping them navigate that rather complicated system is another resource we provide.
Bob: That’s awesome. I encourage all our listeners to check out modernmilitary.org, I believe is the correct URL, and we’ll put that link on the show notes for this episode, as well, to take advantage of that. Cathy, I want to thank you so much for joining us. This has been a great conversation and I hope that you will be willing to come back sometime in the future and we can get even deeper into some of these challenges that our families are facing and how we can support them both as military service providers and as people in the community who care about each other.
Cathy: I appreciate it. I really appreciate the opportunity. One thing I would add that we didn’t get to is just that LGBTQ people and LGBTQ youth are not out to get you if you use the wrong pronouns. They’re not out to get you if you say LGBTQ and not LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA or two-spirit LGBTQIA+. People are really just looking for a good effort and acceptance. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. We want allies, we’re very forgiving of things like that and we just want everybody to be part of our community. We’re very open and welcoming.
Jessica: Thank you so much. We would love to have you back. If you’d like to learn more about supporting LGBTQ+ military families, please check out two upcoming webinars from OneOp. You can join the webinar providing affirmative care to the LGBTQ+ military community live on May 4th, 2023. The webinar care considerations for the transgender and gender diverse military community will take place on May 11th, 2023. Both webinars will be recorded and available on demand. Go to oneop.org/events and search for LGBTQ to find these webinars and other resources.
Bob: That’s going to wrap up this episode of Practicing Connection. Thanks so much for joining us. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast app, or by signing up to be a part of the Practicing Connection community at oneop.org/practicing-connection, and by following us on Twitter. Our Twitter handle is @PracticingCXN. That’s @PracticingCXN.
Jessica: Thanks so much, again, to our guest Cathy Marcello, for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank our announcer, Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all of the music you hear on the podcast. Finally, thank you for joining us. We hope you’ll join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.[music]
Kalin: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award number 2019-48770-30366.
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