Milwaukee VA Medical Center
LGBT committee making strides after decade of work
A lot can change in 10 years. Just ask Dino Mantzavrakos.
“When we started the LGBT Committee over 10 years ago, there were really no visible marks in the hospital welcoming LGBT folks,” said Mantzavrakos, program manager for the committee.
“And now, we’ve really changed the culture here by having visible, verbal and very obvious displays of support throughout the medical center. It’s a huge shift from where we started.”
But that doesn’t mean the committee has put up the “Mission Accomplished” sign and disbanded. Far from it.
June is Pride Month, and the committee’s work is continuing, despite the cancellation of the committee’s biggest event -- PrideFest Milwaukee -- and the cancellation of other public events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, the celebration has gone virtual, with General Broadcast announcements and a series of Facebook vignettes where Milwaukee VA staff discuss what Pride means to them.
Here’s a sample:
- “Pride Month means to me … celebrating who you are as a person.” – Suzan Hoopengarner.
- “As a parent of LGBT children, I feel they need love, respect and acceptance. That’s what anyone needs.” – Susan Thomas
- “My definition of gay pride is nurturing and healing. It comes in a rainbow of warmth. But mostly it’s the awareness that I don’t have the constant feeling that comes with thinking I am less than, or defective, or in order to cope I have to make myself believe that I’m better than someone else. It also comes in being absolutely convinced that I have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We are all created equal. I just have a little glitter in my pockets.” – Raymond Konz-Krzyminski
- “Love is love; we’re all human beings, so therefore we should all be able to love who we want to love, despite race, creed, color, gender, sex or religion. Be out and be proud. That’s what Pride means to me.” – Lori Kleszczynski
And at the end of the month, a virtual town hall is planned.
“Our ultimate goal is to have people feel comfortable here and want to come here for care. Our Veterans know us as a place that's welcoming.” Dino Mantzavrakos, on the strides the Milwaukee VA has made over the last 10 years.
“The focus is on getting queer employees at the hospital to share their experiences of what it’s like to be LGBTQ at the VA here,” said Dr. Michael Amil, LGBTQ+ psychology fellow at the Milwaukee VA. “The hope is to highlight positive experiences, instances of resiliency, strength, hope and ally-ship.”
The goal of all the committee’s work is to make sure everyone -- employees, patients and Veterans -- know the Milwaukee VA is open and accepting.
“Our ultimate goal is to have people feel comfortable here and want to come here for care,” Mantzavrakos said. “Our Veterans know us as a place that’s welcoming.
“The last thing you want, say for a transgender individual, is for them not to come here and get necessary lab tests because they’re frightened that their provider is going to be judgmental or insensitive to their needs as an individual.”
To that end, the Milwaukee VA offers Safe Zone training, which aims to “teach people how to interact in a respectful and empowering manner with their LGBT patients, friends and families so we don’t create an environment where people don’t seek care here,” Mantzavrakos said.
The training is not a cookie-cutter Power Point presentation, Mantzavrakos is quick to point out. Instead, it is tailored to the particular circumstance being addressed.
He noted a recent situation where communication issues arose in an area with an LGBT employee. The Safe Zone training and subsequent discussion led to a positive outcome, Mantzavrakos said.
He lauded Amil for taking the training “to the next level. … It has been well-received by people we’ve trained,” Mantzavrakos said.
“We build the Safe Zone training around their goals,” Amil said. “We want to make sure we’re attentive to the needs of the people who are asking us to step in.”
“People reach out to us for training the majority of the time,” Mantzavrakos said, noting that resistance to the training is “way less than when we first started.”
He remembered in the early days people backing away from the LGBT booth at a diversity fair after learning what the acronym stood for.
“Now we get, ‘Thank you so much for being here. … This means so much to me to have a visible effort here.’”
“With COVID, there is an increased sense of isolation and loneliness ... that can lead to a lot of distress for folks. We want to alleviate some of that.” Dr. Michael Amil, LGBTQ+ psychology fellow, on what the Milwaukee VA is doing to help Veterans during the pandemic.
In the time of COVID-19 and its quarantine orders, Amil said it’s even more important that LGBTQ individuals feel accepted.
“With COVID, there is an increased sense of isolation and loneliness,” Amil said. “There are so many right now that are already depressed because they’re dealing with stresses just by being a part of the LGBTQ community, and on top of it you add this layer of isolation, and that can really lead to a lot of distress for folk. We want to alleviate some of that.”
While group meetings have been canceled and access to the hospital restricted, Mantzavrakos said outreach is continuing.
“We’re making sure everyone is feeling safe,” Amil said. “Instead of meeting as a group, we’ve been reaching out to them, one-on-one, to make sure they’re still feeling connected; they’re still being heard. We never want to feel like our Veterans are being dropped. They’re always being cared for in one capacity or another.”
Mantzavrakos and Amil noted that acceptance and recognition of the LGBT community has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.
The country has moved from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the 1990s to marriage equality being confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2015.
But more work remains.
“It’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come, but we need to continue to stay engaged with the work that needs to be done,” Amil said. “I think our work here has been to stay engaged and to continue supporting people … to take care of each other. We don’t have it perfect, but it is a dedication in working toward that destination.”
“Every year it’s better. Every year it’s a little more, and every year it’s a little different,” he said. “As far as VAs go, we have been ahead of the curve. Milwaukee is special; we truly are. We’re grateful we have support.”
The videos created by the LGBT Committee for Pride Month all tell a different story:
Susan Thomas has been a medical support assistant at the Milwaukee VA since August 2014. "I had worked at VA briefly before and was excited to have the opportunity to come back to work with veterans once again," she said. "I have several veterans in my family and like being able to try and give back. I feel honored to be a part of the VA’s very committed LGBT committee and their efforts to ensure LGBT Veterans and employees feel they have a safe and accepting environment. As a parent of LGBT children, I am happy to have an opportunity to try to bring awareness to all who are ready to open their minds and hearts and learn that all people deserve love and respect."
Lori Kleszczynski is a registered murse at the Milwaukee VA since November 2008. She has a special place in her heart for Veterans as her father was in the Army during Vietnam and her grandfather was a World War II prisoner of war. She has been a strong ally for the LGBTQ community all of her life.
Dr. Michael Amil currently serves as the LGBT psychology fellow. They work alongside the Veteran Care Coordinator to provide psychological services, LGBT specific resources for Veterans, and Safe Zone trainings for clinics throughout the Milwaukee VA.
Dino Mantzavrakos has been with the Milwaukee VA for well over a decade and currently serves as a medical records administration specialist as part of the Health Information Management Program. Dino is also the program manager for the EEO LGBT Committee. He is passionate about people and is extremely proud to be part of an incredible group of people that help create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone that visits the Medical Center
Suzan Hoopengarner is a program support assistant for VA central office's Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Services. She served six years in the Navy as a hospital corpsman. Her father, brother, grandfather, two uncles and one cousin also served in the military. She enjoys working with the LGBT committee and educating people on being an LGBTQ ally.
Raymond Konz-Krzminski is a social worker at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Gary J. Kunich has been the public affairs officer at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center since November 2009. He also spent 20 years in the Air Force.