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Health Matters: Health care access for the LGBT community

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) community has been one of the groups most adversely affected by the United States health care providers deficiencies, according to the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) and the National Coalition for LGBT Health. Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are about twice as likely to be uninsured due to discriminatory practices in employment and in the health care system, and these rates are even higher for transsexual persons, accordimg to GLMA.

An absence of health insurance puts LGBT individuals at a higher risk of developing serious health problems from a lack of medical treatment, resulting in overall lower health status, according to GLMA.

Another barrier that prevents LGBT individuals from receiving quality healthcare is providers’ lack of understanding of LGBT needs, according to the National Coalition for LGBT Health. Some people may feel uncomfortable sharing their sexual identity with their providers because they fear a negative reaction.

A student at Mills, who identifies as lesbian and prefers to remain anonymous, recalls a recent check-up with her doctor that put her in an uncomfortable situation. She confided to her provider that she was experiencing irregular periods and, assuming that she was a heterosexual woman, her doctor repeatedly asked her if it was possible she was pregnant.

“I hesitated to respond because I was thinking about whether I should come out to her or not, and she took it as if I was hiding something from her,” she said.

For this Mills student, it was apparent that it never occurred to her provider to ask how she identified.

Phuong Tseng, a sophomore at Mills who identifies as lesbian also had a similar experience with her health care provider.

“I just don’t like most doctors in general,” Tseng said. “It’s because of their lack of understanding and patience and proneness to miscommunication.”

However, Mills alumna Natasha Tractenberg has had a different experience. She has no problem being open about her sexuality with her health care provider. She said she has never felt intimidated about disclosing her identity as a lesbian to her health care providers, including during her time at Mills.

“They might have had the initial reaction of ‘Oh, okay!’ but usually it was normal after that,”
Tractenberg said.

But Tractenberg also added that it may not be as easy for some people to disclose her sexual orientation. She said that a lot of doctors need training to be sensitive and  not just assume someone’s sexual orientation. Until then, LGBT individual won’t feel comfortable
being open.

GLMA and the National Coalition for LGBT Health have reported on particular health concerns that affect LGBT people. The National Coalition for LGBT Health has reported that gay men and transgendered women account for a vast amount of new HIV/AIDS infections: 50 percent for gay men and 25 percent for trans women. Both organizations and others have confirmed that LGBT individuals are more likely than heterosexual people to experience mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, due in large part to marginalization and discrimination based on their identity. They are also more likely to smoke and abuse alcohol. These are habits that, at times, can be attributed as a coping mechanism to deal with identity-related stress.

In an interview with Metro Weekly, Leslie Calman, Executive Director of the Mautner Project, a national organization dedicated for the health of lesbians, said that higher rates of drinking and smoking in LBT women could also be a result of these habits being a condoned method of socialization for the community. However, such habits put people at high risk of developing serious health problems in the future.

According to the GLMA, obesity is more common for transgendered people and lesbians, and the risk of cardiovascular diseases is especially high for this demographic. The GLMA suggests that the combination of tobacco use and inadequate physical activity and nutrition are the reasons for higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. The organization also suggests that proper diet and nutrition are not priorities for many trans people, especially as many work long hours to support their transitions.

Leslie Calman said that many lesbian women do not follow adequate nutrition and exercise standards because they do not strive to meet cultural expectations for body size that heterosexual women may emphasize.

GLMA has also documented  that lesbian women are at a higher risk of developing gynecological cancer and breast cancer from a lack of cancer screenings.

Mills College has recongzied its responsibilty to create a safe place for its LGBT students and to support closing the gap of health care disparities that are common in other resources, according to Kim Baranek, Director of Wellness and Community Outreach.  As an LGBT ally and queer woman, she understands the importance of finding knowledgeable health care providers who are sensitive to the spectrum of LGBT health concerns. She has helped many students navigate the health care system for on and off campus providers that can serve their needs. Baranek is also available by appointment to answer specific questions students have about accessing health care and support.

LGBT Mills students can access accommodating health care resources through multiple on-campus sites. The Community Resource Center in the Cowell building offers information on LGBT health as well as information on clinics and social justice organizations that specialize in serving the LGBT community.

Two respected health care centers Baranek recommends are the Lyon Martin Health Care Services in San Francisco and the Pacific Center in Berkeley.

“I definitely know people at Mills and people outside of Mills that have been pleased with their services,” Baranek said about Lyon Martin Health Care Services.

Baranek is also the liaison between the Student Health Center and Kaiser at Mills. Baranek emphasized that students can contact her to offer feedback based on their visits to the Student Health Center. As a response to students’ questions and needs, she put together the LGBT Guide to Navigating Kaiser, a form that explains Kaiser’s gender identification system, services covered by Kaiser’s insurance and the names and contact information of physicians who specialize in LGBT health issues. The form can be accessed in front of Baranek’s office, Cowell 109. One of the providers cited in the form is Dr. Stephanie Scott, the only family health practitioner and LGBT specialist who  comes to Mills from her outside office. She is available at the Mills Student Health Center on Tuesdays.

Currently, the Diversity and Social Justice Committee on campus is working on creating a page on the Mills website that outlines resources available on and off campus. The page is expected to be completed by the end of this fall semester. Through these resources, Mills is taking steps to harbor a reliable and safe network for LGBT students.

Health Matters is a column written by the second-year nursing students participating in the Nursing Leadership Class.