Disparity Dialogue

Activists say personal education, honesty, patient-doctor relationships crucial to LGBT health

A group of about 20 LGBT community members and advocates gathered in the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington June 14 to listen to local experts talk about the importance of guarding one’s health, particularly in light of research showing health disparities between LGBT people and their straight counterparts.

The town hall, hosted by Capital Pride and Whitman-Walker Health, was a sort of wrap-up to the Capital Pride festivities. The event, moderated by longtime activist Christopher Dyer, featured a variety of LGBT advocates and service providers: Ron Simmons, executive director of Us Helping Us, People Into Living; Leslie Calman, executive director of Mautner Project: The National Lesbian Health Organization; Leandrea Gilliam, manager of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League’s (SMYAL) Care Advocate Program; Brant Miller, an HIV/AIDS program associate with The DC Center; Juan Carlos Loubriel, a community health manager at Whitman-Walker; and Brian Watson, program director at Transgender Health Empowerment.

Dyer asked all panelists to confirm that they could use more funding to carry out the initiatives they feel are necessary to address LGBT health concerns. Beyond the funding issue, he asked them to share their insights into why the aforementioned health disparities between LGBT people and straight people exist, and what can be done about it.

Panelists shared common themes of stigma and discrimination on one hand, and the lack of knowledge about how to best take care of oneself on the other. Gilliam, speaking of her experiences dealing with HIV-positive youth, said she found many clients didn’t know how to care for themselves, lacked insurance and, in some cases, were kicked out of their homes because of a ”triple-stigma” associated with being young, LGBT or questioning, and infected with HIV.

But Calman, while citing her own ”white privilege” in accessing the best possible health care she could, said that health disparities don’t just exist among the youth or the poor. For instance, she said, studies show that lesbians, sometimes from fear of discrimination, sometimes from lack of knowledge, tend to be less likely than their straight counterparts to get regular health screenings. Calman also cited statistics that showed that lesbians were more likely to suffer from weight problems and smoking addiction, other factors that may impede or complicate the idea of healthy living.

Other panelists shared similar stories where stigma, discomfort or a lack of understanding or of how to access available resources played a role in the health of LGBT individuals.

But the panelists didn’t dwell on the negative, sharing personal stories of how they’ve made certain commitments to their own health and well-being and encouraged the audience to be ”honest advocates” for their health and to foster open relationships between them and their personal care physicians. All emphasized the importance of being proactive and prioritizing health concerns to address any problems before they become too serious.

”We need to make health care routine,” Watson concluded.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com