VA hospital still reviewing lesbian vet’s complaint

Officials to decide on discipline for nurse accused of anti-gay tirade

Esther Garatie

Esther Garatie

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

Officials at the Dallas VA Medical Center are expected to decide within weeks whether to discipline a nurse accused of discriminating against a lesbian Marine veteran who sought mental health treatment.

The VA Medical Center has placed the nurse, Lincy Pandithurai of Cedar Hill, on administrative duty pending the outcome of its investigation into a complaint from 28-year-old Esther Garatie of Irving.

Garatie, a former Marine lance corporal who was honorably discharged in 2006, said she sought treatment for severe depression and possible post-traumatic stress disorder — including thoughts of suicide — on Oct. 12.

Garatie alleges that during a two-hour tirade, Pandithurai told her she was living in sin and said that was the reason for her mental health issues. Garatie said the nurse advised her to accept Jesus and become straight.

Monica A. Smith, a spokesman for the VA Medical Center, said this week that the hospital’s investigative board completed its inquiry into Garatie’s complaint on Friday, Dec. 2. The investigative board’s report will now be forwarded the hospital’s Executive Office.

“The Executive Office, Human Resources, and the Office of General Counsel will review the board’s report and determine what, if any, actions are necessary,” Smith said. “We expect this will take no longer than a few weeks.”

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition at Change.org calling for the VA Medical Center to terminate Pandithurai based on Garatie’s complaint. Garatie has also filed a complaint against Pandithurai with the Texas Board of Nursing.

Both the VA Medical Center and the Board of Nursing have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Pandithurai didn’t return phone messages from Dallas Voice seeking comment about the complaints.

Since Dallas Voice first reported on the complaints in late October, both the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News have published articles.

Jessica Gerson, Garatie’s close friend who’s been assisting her with the complaints, said this week that the ex-Marine is holding up well despite the publicity. However, Gerson said the VA Medical Center is still “dragging their feet on providing real therapy.”

Gerson said Garatie has finally been assigned a permanent therapist but won’t be able to see the doctor until Dec. 16.

“This is rather disheartening, as you might imagine, but unfortunately not particularly surprising at this point,” Gerson said in an email this week. “The publicity has been hard for her, particularly the need to relive what happened at the VA (and some of her other traumatic experiences) over and over again, but she’s been a real trouper, as ever.

“She’s such a private person that this publicity has been deeply uncomfortable for her, not only because of the need to relive her experiences, but also simply because she’s the kind of person who prefers to stay quietly in the background,’ Gerson said. “It’s taken a great deal of courage for her to set her preference for privacy aside enough to seek justice for what happened.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

VA nurse accused of anti-gay tirade

Lesbian Marine vet files complaints against employee at Dallas hospital

READ THE FULL TEXT OF ESTHER GARATIE’S STATEMENT

Garatie.Esther

Marine veteran Esther Garatie

JOHN WRIGHT | Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

A wounded lesbian Marine veteran who sought mental health treatment at the Dallas VA Medical Center claims she was subjected to an extended anti-gay tirade by a nurse practitioner.

Esther Garatie, 28, a former Marine lance corporal who lives in Dallas, has filed complaints against the nurse practitioner, Lincy Pandithurai of Cedar Hill, with both the VA Medical Center and the Texas Board of Nursing.

Garatie and her friend, Jessica Gerson, have also launched an online petition at Change.org calling for Pandithurai to be fired. By Thursday, Oct. 27, the petition had more than 1,300 signatures.
Pandithurai didn’t return phone messages left at the VA Medical Center or her residence in Cedar Hill.

Garatie, a native of New Orleans who moved to Dallas earlier this year, said she was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2006 after severely injuring her leg while on active duty.

She said she went to the Dallas VA Medical Center on Oct. 12 to seek treatment for severe depression and possible post-traumatic stress disorder — including thoughts of suicide.

In a three-page written statement about the incident, Garatie alleges that Pandithurai inquired about her sexual orientation at the outset of their meeting. After Garatie responded that she was a lesbian, Pandithurai told Garatie she was living in sin and said that was the reason for her mental health issues, according to the statement.

“She sat down and looked at me, and her first question was, ‘Are you a lesbian?’” Garatie wrote in the statement. “Her second question to me was, ‘Have you asked God into your heart? Have you been saved by Jesus Christ?’ This is when I realized that I was no longer a United States veteran in her eyes, I was just a homosexual.”

The session lasted for more than three hours, with Pandithurai citing the Bible and repeatedly telling Garatie she was living in darkness and would be doomed to hell if she didn’t “come back to ‘the light,’” according to the statement.

Pandithurai told Garatie she could change her sexual orientation. Pandithurai also told Garatie homosexuality was a diagnosable condition until President Barack Obama changed that, the statement alleges.

Penny Kerby, a spokeswoman for the VA Medical Center, confirmed that Garatie’s complaint is under investigation.

“VA North Texas Health Care System does not tolerate discrimination on any level and takes any allegation of such behavior seriously,” Kerby said in a statement. “Each employee who interacts with every veteran patient is expected to demonstrate our core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence. This allegation is being investigated and if substantiated, appropriate measures will be taken to address the issue.”

Bruce Holter, a spokesman for the Texas Board of Nursing, said the agency doesn’t comment on investigations that are in progress.

The state’s Standards of Nursing Practice prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, Holter said.

According to the board’s website, Pandithurai has been registered as a nurse in Texas since 1993, with no previous disciplinary action against her.

Garatie said she’s not the type of person who would normally try to get someone fired, but she wants to prevent the same thing from happening to other gay veterans — particularly after the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Gay DISD cop among few out male officers

Although Jeremy Liebbe is 100 percent out, he declined to be photographed for this story because he does undercover work.

Jeremy Liebbe serves as co-commander for major Oak Lawn events and is a board member at Youth First Texas

JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

Jeremy Liebbe’s coming-out-at-work experience was unusual to say the least.

It was September 2004, and Liebbe had been with the Dallas Independent School District’s police force for less than two months. He and another officer were traveling down U.S. Highway 175 toward “Dead Man’s Curve” at a high rate of speed late at night, with their lights and sirens activated, responding to a call for help from a third officer who was in a fight with some suspects.

Liebbe’s partner, a former Marine raised in South Dallas, was behind the wheel. (“Not the individual you would think to come out to,” Liebbe says.)

Liebbe’s partner suddenly turned to him and said flatly, “Are you gay?”

“My first thought was, if I answer correctly, are we going to wreck out in Dead Man’s Curve?” Liebbe recalls. “I just said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And he said, ‘OK, cool.’ Then we go down and deal with the fighting suspects and get everybody in custody, and he decides to out me to the suspects and the other officer by telling them what type of person, in Marine terminology, just kicked their tail.

“I was like, well, that’s one way to come out at work.”

A few weeks later, Liebbe says, rumors about his sexual orientation, now confirmed, had “spread like wildfire,” and he found himself called in to meet with his supervisor, the lieutenantover internal affairs. The lieutenant explained there was a rumor going around that Liebbe was gay.

“I said, ‘OK, well it’s true.’ And he said, ‘So you’re just going to freely admit it?’” Liebbe recalls. “I said, ‘One, we have our nondiscrimination policies that are board mandated, and two, as the internal affairs lieutenant, if I lied to you about something as trivial as that, would you ever trust me again?’

“He said, ‘That’s a damn good point.’”

Since then, Liebbe says, his sexual orientation hasn’t been much of an issue at DISD, and he gets along well with the lieutenant.

“There have been some situations that have come up at work, as would be expected in a paramilitary organization, but for the most part, I’m a supervisor now,” he says. “Most people, just because of the fact that I’m a supervisor, are going to leave me alone. It also helps that DISD has a longstanding nondiscrimination policy for employment practices that covers sexual orientation, so that gives some fallback.”

Today, the 32-year-old Liebbe has been with the DISD police for more than six years and serves as a detective sergeant in narcotics. (Because he does undercover work, he didn’t want his photograph to appear alongside this story.)

Liebbe is one of the few openly gay police officers in North Texas who are male — if not the only one. And as it turns out, Liebbe’s decision to go into law enforcement was something of an accident that began in the gayborhood.

In 2001, Liebbe was studying computer science at UT Dallas and had started a database design company. At 22, he had “damn good money flowing in,” and he says he found himself on the Cedar Springs strip three to five nights a week.

At the time, Liebbe says, there was gang activity in some of the clubs. As a regular who happened to be a first-degree black belt, Liebbe says he wound up ending a couple of fights “quickly and efficiently.”

When Caven’s security team asked Liebbe to join them, he questioned why he’d want to. But after learning it would mean free drinks and reduced cover charges, “I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Liebbe recalls.

Shortly thereafter, Liebbe caught the attention of Sgt. Lynn Albright, then the Dallas Police Department’s LGBT liaison officer, who noticed that he was a little different from other Caven security guards.

“She said, ‘If you want something to do when you’re bored, come play with us,’” Liebbe recalls.

Albright asked Liebbe to ride along with her twice, and if he wasn’t’ convinced to go to the police academy and become a reserve officer, she’d leave him alone.

“I actually thought she was crazy for suggesting I become a cop,” he recalls.

But Liebbe was hooked, and despite becoming a cop, he never abandoned his roots in the LGBT community.

For the last eight years, Liebbe has worked all of the major events on Cedar Springs, from Pride to the Halloween block party to, most recently, the Super Bowl block party. And for the last three years, he’s served as operations co-commander for them.

It’s a huge job that requires hundreds of hours of preparations for each event on the part of Liebbe and two co-commanders.

“We almost are getting to the point where we literally roll from one event to another,” he says.

Liebbe says he’s proud of how smoothly events run in Oak Lawn compared to other areas of the city. And he’s convinced so many DISD officers to work the events that they now typically make up half the law enforcement presence — which he says ultimately benefits LGBT youth.

Liebbe also serves as a volunteer and board member at Youth First Texas, which stemmed from his role on the Pride Steering Committee since YFT is a beneficiary of the parade.

As an Eagle Scout who was eventually ousted from the Boy Scouts for being gay, Liebbe says he’s always had a place in his heart for youth organizations.

He began volunteering at YFT a few years ago while taking some time off from work, after he’d just finished investigating 33 cheese heroin deaths at DISD.

He recalled that on his YFT volunteer application he wrote, only half-jokingly: “I think it would be spiritually uplifting to work with at-risk groups who are not in handcuffs.”

As it turns out, the presence of a law enforcement officer at YFT has both practical and symbolic importance. For example, the former director of YFT sometimes questioned why Liebbe insisted on carrying a concealed firearm at the center — until a deadly shooting a few years ago at an LGBT youth center in Israel.

Liebbe also teaches a self-awareness and self-defense program at YFT called SEED, which stands for Survive, Evade, Escalate and Destroy. Liebbe, who was bullied as a teenager, says his role as a DISD police officer gives him an interesting perspective on the problem, and the recent LGBT youth suicide crisis reopened old wounds.

Despite its name, Liebbe says the SEED program, which he wrote with a friend, doesn’t advocate violence. Instead, the program is based on the idea that most bullies will back down if you stand up to them, even if it’s just verbally.

“We teach that violence is a last resort,” he says. “You don’t hit anybody unless they’ve taken a swing at you. But once the bullying escalates to violence, once it becomes bashing, then the nature of the game needs to change.”

Liebbe says he makes clear to YFT youth that he isn’t there as a cop, before adding that he hopes they’re never involved in one of his investigations, because his case clearance rate is pretty high.

But given the perception in the LGBT community that law enforcement isn’t gay-friendly — and the fact that a lot of officers sleep through diversity training — Liebbe acknowledges that the mere presence of a gay law enforcement officer at YFT can’t hurt.

“Every one of the youth there who get to know me can say there’s at least one cop that, if I see him, I can give him a hug and he’ll help me,” Liebbe says.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright