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Queer Women of Color Ask, 'Who Cares and Who Gets Care?'

By Diana Fraser

Imagine, if you will, you arrive at a new clinic after getting a solid recommendation on a healthcare provider with whom your friend had a good experience. Your friend explains how she felt heard and seen for who she was, so you take this as a positive sign. So you make an appointment and show up to read magazines for a few moments in the waiting area before being ushered into an exam room.

Now imagine that, when the physician strolls into the room, she refuses to treat you. Perhaps she gives you an explanation, perhaps not. How would you feel?

That scenario is not an unusual one for transgender and gender non-conforming people (GNC). In fact, recent research from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reveals that 19% of transgender and GNC individuals have been denied medical services and treatment because of how they identify. The same study also reports that 56% of LGBTQ+ people have faced discrimination when seeking medial care, and nearly a quarter of those encountered discriminatory practices in the last year alone.

Whether doctors use abusive language, refuse to acknowledge a patient's chosen pronouns on medical intake forms or ignore the specific needs of LGBTQ+ patients, normative gender/sexual orientations still abound in the healthcare industry, leaving many with a difficult question: Should I even go to the doctor?

Four queer women of color discuss barriers to LGBTQ+ women's health care and share affirming ways to combat systems of oppressions through health education. The discussion features Katie Robinson and Hadija Steen-Mills of Family Tree Clinic; Nafeesa Dawoodbhoy, MHA; and Jessica Easter, Hospital Chaplain.

Hadija Steen-Mills: So many aspects of identity mean so many different things, and we can't treat and isolate identity because that's what makes us who we are. We all have different life experiences, and different things that bring us to the table, and different ways we hear and see and feel.

Katie Robinson: And everybody needs different health care. Like every single person needs a slightly different interaction with doctors and different kinds of medication and whatnot, so I hesitate to draw a blanket statement across all queer women of color.

Hadija: Right.

Nafeesa Dawoodbhoy: Well, I think also who are we receiving care from comes to mind for me because already there aren't enough women of color in medicine, and then if you look at queer people - whether that's queer white people or queer women of color - that subset just gets a lot smaller. So a queer white woman is probably more likely to have a white provider, right? Well, much more likely to have a white provider, and then perhaps a little bit more likely to have a queer white provider, whereas like the chances of a queer woman of color having a queer woman of color provider are just like magical unicorns! And so who's actually in the medical profession, who we're receiving care from, I think makes the primary difference, too.

Katie: I read this book recently that had this line, it was like, "Western science downplays what it doesn't know," so everything it doesn't notice it's like, "Oh, that's not important."

Jessica Easter: Wow, I mean it's absolutely true, it's not like, "Oh, I never thought of it like that."

Katie: Right.

Hadija: There's so much power in medicine with the holding of knowledge and the keeping of information. And because it's all behind these closed doors of where people are gaining this knowledge. Like if there was a class that was half POC, to be able to mess up that knowledge and they could be like, "No, actually let's change this curriculum a little bit," you know.

Nafeesa: I think also, thinking to the way in which I've experienced queerness in the medical profession, there's a lot with risk and health care that really bugs me. Risk is seen as something to mitigate and it's not seen as something a person can define for themselves so if you think about like the ABCs that they tell you in sexual health - like Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms - that''s that gonna work for a lot of queer women? That's just not a reality, right? Especially if you're poly or you practice, you sleep with different genders. There's just, inherently what the medical profession would define as "risk" is just like my life and the way I am, but they call it risky. And that has always been, to me, like whatever you define is risk is obviously not what I define is risk, and regardless I get to decide how much risk I take or don't take. And that autonomy of, you know, "I'm the only one that owns this body" is never seen in a medical profession. I think it's kind of bred into doctors that they are responsible for my body in this way that is not true.

Jessica: Yeah, there is definitely a deeply entrenched paternalism. Going to the doctor is inherently a power move, and so I'm going in to ask your expertise on what's going on with my body and, I think, going back to the paternalism of the the medical field, I have had doctors come in and just rapid-fire questions and they don't really get to know me, they barely introduce themselves, I don't know who they are, and they're gonna do a pap smear. Like I just had that last week. And it was as awkward as you could imagine, but as soon as we - not very much leveling the playing field - but tell me a little bit more about yourself because that humanizes you and that gives me room to tell you a bit more about myself.

Katie: I think generally, in terms of why do what I do, I'm just working for liberation. I just want to be free! I wanna be free so badly, and I want everybody to be free. And I think sex ed is like a really cool kind of subversive way to get at that freedom because when you talk about sex, you're talking about everything, you're talking about a whole person. So I'm like, what are the little moments where I could just get in here, validate that, right, validate this, you know, and then maybe, because most of the time, I'm meeting for one hour and I'm probably never gonna see these youth again. So, I'm just like let me just say one little earworm that'll make you be like, "Oh!" I think there's a lot of opportunity in what we call "sex-ed" to just really subvert all of these different legs of this system of oppression, you know, organism. Like sometimes you'll see kids who are asking questions like, "Wait, so a person could feel different then how people have been calling them? Like what? Okay..." And they'll just like, sit back and think about it. And it's just yeah, you just see possibilities that had never occurred to them before or that they have been  systemically held back from them, and so it's like that feels really fun. Those are the best moments to me.

Hadija: I mean, yeah, it is cool to see a young person's face light up when you get to talk about them and they've never gotten to experience that before and it's even the smallest little thing and they're just like, "Oh, you know, you get it!"

Katie: Yeah.

Hadija: "Oh, I'm here, cool!"

Jessica: I recognize that my spirituality and theology is probably very unorthodox, but I cannot separate sexuality from spirituality. Those are one in the same for me. And so, yes, I work as a hospital chaplain and, yes, I also work in a feminist sex shop. And there are times when I use skills that I've learned from being a hospital chaplain during some of the most extreme cases that I've applied to working with customers who have never bought a toy for themselves before and are very nervous or like, "This is my first time." By starting with "Congratulations," make it instead like, "Congratulations, this is a big step." That validation of emotion and saying, you know, "The world is your oyster! Look at all these things that we have. Do you wanna do this? Are people telling you you should do this? Why? Why not?" So, I think just being there and being a cheerleader for other human beings...we need more of that.

Hadija: And I also think all of this work is really healing. I think there's also part of me that selfishly does this, too...that I'm healing myself as I do this work. And I wouldn't be a whole person if I were a dentist - no shade on dentists - but that wouldn't be where I would get my healing from.

Katie: Are you familiar with Autumn Brown and Adrienne Maree Brown?

Nafeesa: I'm familiar with Adrienne Maree Brown.

Katie: So, the Brown Sisters have this podcast. And they were talking to this author, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and she brought up specifically Harriet Tubman. So they were like, "Okay, define 'What is fugitivity? What is Black fugitivity?' It's like Tubman-ness, right?" Because she existed most of her life illegally, you know? And Alexis Pauline Gumbs said, "She believed more in her freedom than in the structures that were opposed to her freedom."

Jessica: Damn.

Katie: So when you talk about how just our imagination is so boundless and that Tubman-ness - I'm trying to get to that.

All [in agreement]: Yeah.

Queer women are not statistically "safe" when seeking health care, but there are medical spaces that have been crafted so that they can be treated with the same dignity as any other patient. The documentary film Patient No More explores the barriers LGBTQ+ women navigate across healthcare systems, and how the never-ending hunt for affirming care affects their lives.

The topic of queer women's struggles with health care "...was near and dear to my heart after so many years straddling the line between health care and storytelling across my own coming-out process. Despite all of the terrible research I found, I must say that I still genuinely believe in the transformative power of the medical community, but most especially what it can be instead of what it currently is." Discover what motivated the producer of Patient No More to make the film. 

Despite the 50th anniversary of the landmark Stonewall Riots in 2019, many current-day LGBTQ+ community members don’t know much about queer history because it’s been systematically erased. Take a look back at the events that unfolded in Greenwich Village in June 1969 and their ripple effects on the modern moment.

Step inside Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore, one of the first lesbian/feminist books shops in the nation, which opened its doors in 1970 and closed in 2012.

Diana Fraser Read More
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