I’m sharing this because I love you, or us. It doesn’t take long to figure out I’m an introvert. Ask any of my closest friends when the last time was I answered their calls instead of letting them go to voicemail. You know, then, that me writing intimate details about my healthcare and my body is a stretch outside my comfort zone. But because I care about the healthcare we receive and because I have some level of privilege within LGBTQ circles, I am going to share a few stories of how providers missed an easy chance to get it right and of how some took an easy step to do the right thing.
This first story is actually one about a positive interaction: Sharing this is an attempt at reducing anxiety about a procedure many women fear. I finally got myself in for that mammogram after years of hearing how terrible it is for women. And I can only own my experience with my body and say: it was not as bad as I thought it would be. No one freaked out that my gender expression is androgynous. No whispers in the changing area—which has stalls—did you know that? The technician was very kind, with no judgment and yet with acknowledgement of how uncomfortable it can be. I actually survived an appointment about my chest. And in my experience, it was not nearly as painful or uncomfortable as women had always told me it was. At least for me.
Good Job / Bad Job
Last May, I visited the ER for the first time. Excruciating pelvic pain had me on the floor. In this incident, the nurses, who happened to be male, scored big points on two fronts—one for finally asking about safety/abuse in our home without my partner in the room and the other for totally casual and appropriate conversations about us having kids. Those of you who know I train on LGBTQ intimate partner violence can imagine how infuriating it is for me to hear over and over my partner being asked in front of me if she is experiencing abuse in her home. Good job, this nurse! On the other hand, and this one blows my mind—one of their diagnostic tests was an STD panel collected via pelvic exam. With.no.sexual.history.taken. I consented to it, assuming the pelvic exam might help diagnose the problem leading to searing pain. Had I known it was for an STD test, um no. And yes, I understand that my being there with my female partner did not indicate that I have no male partners or that we are monogamous. But seriously, take a sexual history, especially if your alternative idea is an invasive exam while the patient is in pain.
And then there’s that doctor at urgent care that repeatedly referred to me as my partner’s “buddy” when she went in for a health concern. I had provided the word “partner” in my introduction. For future reference, please do not introduce new words into the conversation when your patient or their family has already provided you a word. This goes for pronouns too; don’t make things up.
Inclusivity for the Win!
I’d like to close with two examples that seem so simple but show how much a little goes a long way. I ended up on hormones to regulate my cycle because of the whole pelvic pain debacle, following that unnecessary test and a subsequent misdiagnosis. My dear provider actually apologized to me in advance for any possible messages I might hear at the pharmacy about how “the Pill doesn’t prevent STDs.” She knows I have a long-term, female partner and am not trying to get pregnant, and she was trying to get ahead of a non-inclusive comment. A+! And, in the unlikeliest of places, in a recent scare in my partner’s health, we found acceptance in a small town hospital. They cared for our kids while I visited my partner in the ER. When they asked if we were married and I said yes, the kind ER staff person said, “Oh, good!” It’s the little things; it really is.
I train providers, as do many colleagues of mine. We are not asking people to throw out all of their protocols and ways of providing care. We are asking you to form new habits, ask in different ways, allow for mistakes, and listen to what we are telling you. For those of you who are anticipating, listening, messing up and apologizing, creating new scripts and habits, thank you. And please share these tips with your peers. We are paying attention.
This is probably the most difficult health article I have written yet, because in ways you may or may not realize, it’s pretty revealing for me. However, I am a career health educator, sexual health advocate, and strong believer in finding ways LGBTQ people can get respectful, quality healthcare…even for those parts of our body we don’t embrace. Because I love you and want you around.
Molly Hermann is a trainer, researcher and health educator with expertise in HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity, and intimate partner violence. She’s worked for the State of Wisconsin for over 16 years.