Jonathan Mills specializes in strategic communication and serves as the strategy lead for Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Office of Information and Technology’s (OIT) IT Strategic Communication team. Mr. Mills is responsible for developing and implementing OIT’s communication strategy that markets VA’s vision for Digital Transformation. Prior to joining OIT, he served in the Air Force for 10 years, including a deployment to Afghanistan. After separation from the Air Force in 2014, Mr. Mills worked for other government agencies before joining OIT in 2016.
Along with an ITSC colleague, Josh Seefried (who founded an organization called OutServe — a community of about ten thousand active duty LGBTQ+ military who served under the former Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy), Mr. Mills launched a magazine to help build momentum around repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. OutServe Magazine was the first LGBTQ+ publication to receive approval for distribution on military bases worldwide in early 2011. The magazine put a human face on the negative impact of the policy and garnered both military and public support. On Sept. 20, 2011, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed — in part, by generations of forebears and organizations like OutServe who stood up and told the stories of those negatively impacted by the policy. This life changing experience helped Mr. Mills recognize the power of effective storytelling and brought him to VA to tell a new story — the power of information and technology to create a truly seamless, unified Veteran experience.
Q: Thinking of your time in the service, working on important LGBTQ+ social and military policy, what important issues disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ Veterans today? How can VA bring awareness or address these issues?
There are probably two areas. One centers around the medical care and benefits that support LGBTQ+ Veterans. Meeting the LGBTQ+ Veteran community where they are in their healthcare and benefits needs is a critical place for VA to start. There are medical organizations in D.C. that cater directly to members of the LGBTQ+ community because of the unique issues and challenges that the community faces. VA can do the same.
Another place VA can bring awareness and advance the discussion around LGBTQ+ issues is to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion across every level within VA, and advocate for our LGBTQ+ colleagues. A small place to start would include recognizing or establishing preferred pronouns so that we can promote awareness of how applying these pronouns facilitates respect and inclusion at VA. Even if you are not in the LGBTQ+ community, doing something as simple as designating your preferred pronouns in your signature block puts LGTBQ+ members at ease and tells them it’s okay for them to do so as well. It is the small changes you can make daily to acknowledge, affirm, and include LGBTQ+ members in the conversation. In doing so we create opportunities for understanding and allyship.
Q: Tell us about an experience where you felt unseen as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and how you handled it? What lesson did you learn from that experience?
There were a couple of incidents throughout my military service, resulting from the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. The one that stands out occurred at the very beginning of my military service. In fact, it happened right before I got into the military, when I was sitting in the office with my recruiter and we were going through various forms that I had to sign. The recruiter was briefing me on what to expect in the military entrance process. When we got to one form, specifically related to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — a form that asks you to acknowledge the policy — the recruiter started to joke with me about it, assuming that I was not gay and that probably no one who came into his office would or could be gay. (And in fact, though I hadn’t accepted that I was gay at the time, my hands were still shaking as I signed it.) It was a joke to him — and that experience is probably one of the reasons it took me so long to come out. That memory stands out because it was directly related to the policy. The military was asking its own people to sign a piece of paper asking them to adhere to a policy that compromised their integrity — even before they stepped one boot into basic training! It was an enlightening experience, and it played into the work we would do later with OutServe.
It is not enough to read a blog post or retweet an article. It is more about standing up and being counted as an advocate and supporter, in word and deed.
Q: What can LGBTQ+ allies do to support issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community?
Stand up and be counted. Voice your support. It is not enough to read an email that says “we are committed to diversity.” It is not enough to read a blog post or retweet an article. It is more about standing up and being counted as an advocate and supporter, in word and deed. If you’re a policymaker, think about the policies that may negatively impact your LGBTQ+ teammates. If you’re a coworker, put yourself in your LGBTQ+ teammate’s shoes. It is one thing for a small community to stand up for itself, but it is much more impactful thing for leaders and allies outside that community to speak up. It is about standing up and being counted, to support and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in the same way we do other historically marginalized communities. Even in our own industry, the tech industry, we have a long way to go to improve diversity. This begins with marginalized groups standing up and demanding to be counted, yes, but it’s only successful when allies and those in decision making roles — those who are not directly impacted — empathize, internalize, express, and then champion changes that actively diversify their workforces. Stand up and be counted.
Q: How will we know we are headed in the right direction to achieve success with diversity and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community in OIT and on a broader scale?
I would say we will know we are closer when we have improved the level of comfort that members of this community have in being able to be authentic at the office, in their communities, and in society at large. When I say, “improving the level of comfort,” I mean something as simple as talking about weekend plans and encouraging them to feel open about sharing details that are important to them as LGBTQ+ teammates. Normalizing these kinds of conversations would be a strong start. Holding agency-led celebrations of Pride Month across the country, like we do for other minority groups, would also help.
And I think VA is further along in normalizing inclusion in conversation, more than other organizations. In my experience, our collective VA team embraces those who identify as LGBTQ+. Our OIT team embraces a diverse workforce in general, and specifically LGBTQ+ members. We have several folks on the OIT team who are from the LGBTQ+ community and several colleagues across VA who are as well — and many feel safe in being open about that. I wonder, though, how many do not. Inclusion allows us to live and work authentically.
On a larger scale, I think we will know we are closer to achieving inclusion and equality across the board when organizations and citizens celebrate the freedom for LGBTQ+ people to live authentically, just as much as they celebrate the very freedom that comes from being a U.S. citizen. Or when courageous trans members decide to publicly affirm their gender and it’s celebrated, and not talked about in hush whispers. It was eye-opening coming from the military, even after Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, to see community members still hesitant to be open at the organizations I worked at before coming to VA. The non-disclosure message had been baked into our psyche for so long. You didn’t want to offend anyone. You didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable. And so, you had to put yourself back into some sort of box, just so that others would not feel uncomfortable. Which, of course, made you feel uncomfortable.
Eventually landing at VA was a big contrast, in a positive way. At VA, I felt included — from the very first job interview to today.
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