Republicans are widening their criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to recognize LGBT veterans, demanding the agency remove any Pride flags it is flying this month that replaced other flags amid controversy over a flag displayed in Mississippi.
In a letter Tuesday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and 30 other House Republicans called the Pride flag a "political symbol" that shouldn't replace U.S., military, POW/MIA or other official flags typically flown at VA facilities.
Flying the Pride flag, creating rainbow displays and hosting LGBT-themed events during June has become a common way for government agencies and corporations to demonstrate their support for their LGBT members during Pride Month, but this year the celebrations have drawn increasing backlash from conservatives.
"Veterans who have served our country deserve to enter a facility that is free from discrimination and political posturing," the lawmakers wrote in the letter. "These men and women were apolitical when they served our country, and we should strive to provide them with an apolitical VA when they seek the care, benefits, and services that they have earned."
The letter comes after Republican members of Mississippi's congressional delegation penned a similar missive Monday about a Pride flag being flown at a VA hospital and cemetery in Biloxi. The rainbow Pride flag there reportedly replaced an American flag, though local news footage showed that multiple other American flags were still flying at the site.
A spokesperson for Bost also pointed to Pride flags being flown at VA hospitals in Hines, Illinois, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, that they said replaced American or other military-related flags.
The spokesperson initially stressed that Bost's concern was about official flags being replaced by Pride flags. But pressed on whether that means he would be OK if Pride flags were flown in addition to the other flags, the spokesperson said he "doesn't believe any social movement flags should be able to fly over VA facilities."
The attention on the VA's Pride Month commemorations also comes as Republicans are declaring victory after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin banned drag shows on military bases following persistent pressure from conservatives to cancel the events.
LGBT rights and celebrations have been increasingly under attack across the country as conservative politicians lean into culture wars.
The advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which recently declared a "state of emergency" for LGBT Americans, estimates that 76 anti-LGBT laws have been enacted in states this year, among more than 525 bills that were introduced across 41 state legislatures. The laws include bans on drag shows, transgender youth playing on the sports teams of the gender they identify with, gender-affirming care for minors, and discussion of LGBT issues in schools.
At the VA, McDonough has authorized flying the Pride flag at department facilities during June since the start of the Biden administration in 2021. June marks the annual observance of Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBT community timed to the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising that is considered the start of the modern LGBT rights movement.
"Throughout Pride Month, we recognize the contributions of the more than one million LGBTQ+ veterans in this nation, and their families, caregivers, and survivors," VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement to Military.com on Wednesday. "It's our mission at VA to provide these veterans -- and all veterans -- with the world-class care and benefits they deserve in a safe, caring and welcoming environment."
While Hayes did not comment directly on Bost's letter beyond saying the department received it and would respond to the senders, he said the Pride flag is flown at VA facilities "as a symbol of VA's commitment to inclusion and as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of LGBTQ+ veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors."
In their letter, Bost and other Republicans gave the VA a June 16 deadline to remove Pride flags that replaced another flag and ensure the "traditional flag has been placed in its proper position."
Citing the VA National Cemetery Administration's policy on flag displays, the lawmakers also asked for an explanation of how the department "intends to ensure none of its facilities violate its own policy, which does not allow flags promoting politics or any particular viewpoint or ideology."
"I am sure you would agree with us," they wrote, "that the Pride flag is viewed by many, including numerous veterans our offices have engaged with, as a political symbol reflective of a social movement and represents only one group of Americans."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include additional comment from Bost's spokesperson.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.