VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Fabulous, Fearless and Full of Pride
Raised by a gay father and heterosexual mother, Heliana Ramirez was exposed at an early age to an abundance of love at home and homophobia in public. Being of Mexican, Irish, Basque, and Czech descent, her upbringing was more than just diverse, it was the catalyst which made her stronger as an individual and launched her into a life of advocacy.
“When I first dated someone who was gender fluid or transgender, I thought ‘Ok, I am trisexual.’ But that sounded too much like tricycle, which I thought might confuse people,” explained Ramirez, who settled on the term multisexual, or romantically attracted to men, women, and people outside the traditional male/female gender roles.
These life experiences helped her to develop a unique perspective on the intersection of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
She now has more than 20 years of experience working with the LGBT community including Latina lesbian and bisexual high school students, LGBT injection drug users, incarcerated lesbian and bisexual women, gay and bisexual African American men, and LGBT college students. The time span includes obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Masters of Social Work at Washington University, St. Louis, where she was elected Student Body President at both institutions.
With a supportive partner and two year old child in tow, she is a force to be reckoned with and has a wealth of LGBT knowledge. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, where she is writing a dissertation on strength and resilience among LGBT Veterans.
Ramirez’s vitae includes several peer-reviewed articles and professional presentations at venues including the Gay Lesbian Medical Foundation, American Psychological Association, mental health leadership of the California National Guard, and Stanford School of Medicine.
She also gained producer credit in a collaborative film with Michael Nedelman, a Stanford medical student and Andrew V. Ly, a U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. student of music. The poignant documentary sheds light on the recovery of LGBT Veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), The Camouflage Closet.
The film has been screened in over 50 locations nationwide including both the National Queer Film Festival and the Veterans Film Festival in San Francisco and dozens of Veterans Affairs Health Care Systems.
“It is an honor to work with LGBT Veterans because they are among the most resilient members of the LGBT community. Many survived institutional discrimination from gay-related investigations and military discharges, interpersonal discrimination from peer-based harassment, military sexual assault, and rejection from LGBT civilians when they returned home,” says Ramirez, explaining how despite the LGBT military minority stressors compounding traumas of war, many of these Veterans have made major contributions to both U.S. military and civilian sectors.
“The gay pride and transgender pride flags used worldwide today were created by gay Veteran Gilbert Baker and transgender Veteran Monica Helms.”
She got her start with VA in 2006 as a research assistant with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and later became a social work case manager for Veterans living with serious and persistent mental illness.
She moved to part-time employment while starting her doctoral program and began to develop VA projects that “address the needs and build on the strengths of LGBT Veterans.” With the support of her department and facility leadership, she created one of the first 20 VA LGBT Support Groups in 2011, called “LOL: Living Out Loud, Laughing Out Loud.”
The group came at an important time as LGBT issues were being challenged in every corner of the world, several months before the U.S. repealed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy, which banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving openly in the military.
“For some LGBT service members, hiding their sexual orientation and gender identity when they entered the military at a young age can disrupt the process of finding their identity and coming out. In LOL, we create a safe place for LGBT Veterans to integrate their LGBT identities and military experiences, which were often compartmentalized during their service,” says Ramirez.
This momentum resulted in her being tapped in 2012 to become the LGBT Special Emphasis Program (SEP) manager for the VA Palo Alto’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. Her first meeting in April of that year saw more than 35 staff that identified with or supported LGBT efforts.
The LGBT Staff and Allies, or LGBTSA brings many disciplines together to train VA staff about LGBT Veteran Health Care and Policies, raise awareness about LGBT Veterans and staff at VAPAHCS, provide support and social opportunities for LGBT staff, and increase enrollment at VA Palo Alto among LGBT Veterans and employment among LGBT staff.
Along with innovative collaborations with the Disabilities Special Emphasis Program and Federal Women’s Special Emphasis Program, LGBTSA has provided over 30 trainings to various departments within VA Palo Alto on topics like LGBT healthcare, employment benefits, aging, PTSD, substance use and abuse, Safe Space, and LGBT Veterans living with disability (for more information see the LGBTSA Newsletter).
The group regularly conducts outreach at almost every Pride event in the San Francisco Bay Area, an LGBT Homeless Resource Fair, and LGBT Employment Fairs.
Ramirez’s work changed the standards at VA Palo Alto when she led the facility to be designated a "Leader in LGBT Health Equity" by the Human Rights Campaign's Health Care Equality Index in 2013, where LOL and Ramirez were featured in the report. Her continued leadership has helped to maintain this status every year since.
“I work toward LGBTSA’s continued success by actively encouraging members to take on new leadership roles, which can increase promotional opportunities and employee engagement available through SEP membership,” she says, explaining LGBTSA’s success is largely due to her co-chair Kathleen Thomas, Pride Committee Chair John Kingston, Secretary Deirdre McNamara, and numerous impassioned and active SEP members.
To build membership and provide opportunities for existing members to develop facilitation and event planning skills, LGBTSA organized its first retreat to address issues affecting VAPAHCS LGBT employees including newly available employee benefits following repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and education for LGBT Allies. The event hosted more than 65 employees from various services that span from Veteran care to research, facilities management, food service, and Chaplain Service.
All of this progressive change culminated to a proud moment for Ramirez and even for the health care system as she won the Secretary of VA’s Diversity and Inclusion Excellence Award, one of the highest honors in Veterans Affairs.
When asked what the future holds, Ramirez discusses her new role as VAPAHCS LGBT Veteran Care Coordinator through the VA Central Office LGBT Patient Care Services and an All Gender Bathroom Project, that would not only provide privacy for all genders, but help parents with kids or people who use a wheelchair and/or have a personal aid attendant.
She is also changing VA nationwide as a member of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s national LGBT workgroup, where they are currently working on a policy for employees transitioning at work. The LGBT Workgroup recently received an Office of Diversity and Inclusion Shared Leadership Award for their work to support LGBT SEPs and fielding email inquiries from LGBT VA employees across the nation.
Special Note: In light of recent events in Orlando, Heliana Ramirez and the LGBTSA extend their deep condolences to all who lost loved ones, as well as an offer to staff and Veterans to receive support during this time. A fact sheet will be distributed to educate clinicians about the unique ways LGBT Veterans might be affected by the tragedy.
Additionally, all staff and Veterans are invited to march, dance, sing, and celebrate the resilience of the LGBT community with VAPAHCS at the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 26, 2016.
For more information, email John Kingston or call 650-614-9953. Learn more about LGBT initiatives at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System by visiting the LGBT website.