The Air Force veteran — a transgender Long Islander who served in Vietnam named Barbara Salva — took the stage Tuesday afternoon in Hauppauge, keynoting a ceremony for fellow veterans who would be rejected back then if, or when, their secret came out.
"I started crossdressing at about the age of 4 or 5 when my mom was sleeping. I think she thought I was just playing, but it was more than that," Salva said, adding: "I thought I was the only boy who wanted to wear dresses and those beautiful high heels."
Salva, who had played sports in high school and later married a woman, described having to present as male while in the military, and later got an honorable discharge.
“The crossdressing took a sabbatical in 1963 when I went into the Air Force for four years, but the thoughts never went away," Salva said. "It's a bit difficult to crossdress in a barracks full of guys. Wouldn't you think that?"
Decades later, Salva transitioned with the help of the Northport VA.
Tuesday marked National Vietnam Veterans Day, a date picked because the last American combat troops left Vietnam that day in 1973.
The Hauppauge ceremony — hosted by the charities Long Island Cares, SAGEVets and the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services — specifically honored Vietnam veterans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, LGBTQ+, a group long ostracized in the military. That continued until 2010, when then-President Barack Obama rescinded Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
A study last year in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy estimated that 1.5% of Vietnam veterans were lesbian, gay or bisexual. (The study doesn't break out those who are transgender.)
In a news release tied to the day and the ceremony, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office wrote: “Vietnam War Veterans who identify as LGBTQ+ commonly faced social ostracism both for their service in the war and for their sexual orientation.”
Veterans at the Hauppauge ceremony were given the governor’s proclamation and a veterans’ services challenge coin, the release said.
Kristen L. Rouse, an Army veteran during the Afghanistan war and now deputy director for diversity, equity and inclusion at the state veterans agency, invited veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges related to their being LGBTQ+ to reach out to the agency to see whether benefits can be restored.
Years after Salva's military experience, Rouse recalled her own brush with stigma.
"I was watched, I was whispered about, I was investigated, I felt so isolated and endangered by my own colleagues, even as I knew the enemy outside our gates wanted to kill all of us equally."