Political Notebook: Napa wildfires tested state's gay veterans affairs secretary

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday November 15, 2017
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As the Nuns and Atlas wildfires bore down on Napa County in early October, Dr. Vito Imbasciani received word that the Veterans Home of California-Yountville was in the path of the blazes. The facility run by the California Department of Veterans Affairs houses 900 residents, some with various forms of dementia and others who require round-the-clock care due to their ailing health.

Imbasciani, 71, as secretary of the state agency, made the decision to evacuate 130 of the most vulnerable residents at the home to other nearby assisted living facilities. He monitored the situation from his offices in Sacramento and at the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services operations center in Mather, ensuring that the first responders on the ground were aware of the threat the fires presented to the country's largest veterans' home, which can accommodate up to 1,000 residents.

"The fire came very, very close to that home," Imbasciani told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. "The air was very hard to breathe for people even if they didn't have any lung problems. The fire crews did a wonderful job of preserving the buildings."

With the fires now out, and all of the residents back at the veterans home, Imbasciani's focus has returned to how to upgrade the aging facility so it can continue to meet the health needs of its residents, who include veterans of every war dating back to World War II, for years to come.

"My priority for that campus is to figure out a way to rejuvenate this 133-year-old campus," said Imbasciani. "It is the oldest veterans' home in the country."

The threat the fires posed to the Yountville facility was "the largest crisis" Imbasciani has faced since being appointed secretary of the veterans agency by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2015. A gay married father, Imbasciani is one of at least four LGBT heads of a state agency.

He has won praise from LGBT advocates for his handling of the position, which he was unanimously confirmed to by the state Senate on April 20, 2016.

"He is extremely committed to expanding the number of LGBTQ people who have a seat at the table in government service and has been an active participant in our programs," Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur told the B.A.R., noting that Imbasciani has participated in EQCA's Leadership Academy training and mentoring of LGBTQ leaders for public service.

A Democrat, Imbasciani ran in 2014 for a state Senate seat but was unable to advance past the June primary. He had served as state surgeon for the California Army National Guard from 2006 to 2014 and as a surgeon in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1986 to 2014.

A urologic surgeon hired in 1997 by the Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, Imbasciani went on to serve as its director of government relations. He and his partner, Dr. George DiSalvo, the chief financial officer at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, have two adopted sons of Mexican-American heritage, Raymond DiSalvoM, 18, and Isaak DiSalvo, 16, who attend high school in Burbank.

Imbasciani splits his time between his office in the state Capitol four days a week and his family's home in the Hollywood Hills. In Hawaii over the weekend representing the Los Angeles County Medical Association at a meeting of the American Medical Association, Imbasciani took his sons to the solemnity ceremony at Pearl Harbor on Veterans Day, Saturday, November 11.

He is responsible for ensuring the state's 1.78 million veterans, the most of any state, have access to the benefits and programs they are guaranteed due to their military service, from housing support and medical care to access to higher education. While veterans can self-identify as being LGBT on forms used by the state veterans' agency, it does not have an accurate count of how many LGBT veterans live in California.

Despite the move by President Donald Trump to ban transgender people from serving in the military, a position Imbasciani opposes, the state veterans agency does not discriminate against any veteran due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, it assists those LGBT veterans who were dishonorably discharged under the now repealed anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to clean their records so they are able to access their benefits.

"I served 26 of my 27 years in the medical corps in the Army under DADT, so I have a lot of experience with going off to war, coming back and being deployed again abroad without acknowledging or enjoying the presence and support of my family," said Imbasciani.

He is currently hiring a deputy for minority veterans, whose duties include reaching out to LGBT veterans, and encouraged any LGBT veterans to apply for the job.

"This has been a position that has been vacant more than filled, but it hasn't been around for all that long," he said. "I am trying to reinvigorate the whole outreach program."

To learn more about the agency's work with LGBT veterans, visit https://www.calvet.ca.gov/MinorityVets/Pages/LGBT.aspx.

CA educators adopt LGBT history textbooks

California is now the first state in the nation to require public schools to use textbooks that include lessons about the LGBT community and its history. The State Board of Education voted last Thursday, November 9, to approve 10 LGBTQ-inclusive history and social studies textbooks for K-8 classrooms and rejected two that failed to include LGBTQ people.

"The decision today means that LGBTQ students, and those with LGBTQ families, will finally be able to see themselves and our history accurately reflected in textbooks in California," stated Our Family Coalition Executive Director Renata Moreira. "We celebrate SBE's final vote and are more than ready to continue working with partners and educators on the next chapter as we move to district adoption across the state."

The state board's decision stemmed from the passage in 2011 of the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, authored by gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which required school districts to teach students about LGBT individuals and people with disabilities. Over the last two years educators and LGBT activists have been developing the curriculum standards to implement the FAIR Act.

The final step was the approval of the textbooks, which school districts can now purchase. They are allowed to choose other materials, as long as they include the required LGBT content and other lesson plans detailed in the state education agency's History/Social Science Curriculum Framework.

"I am proud California continues to lead the nation by teaching history-social science that is inclusive and recognizes the diversity of our great state and nation," stated State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. "Students will benefit enormously."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column repored on the commemoration of Harvey Milk's election 40 years ago.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes .

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected].