Discrimination doesn’t just stand in the way of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In some cases, it may actually contribute to making us sick.
“I think that we can legitimately call homophobia a health hazard,” said Linda Ellis, executive director of the Health Initiative, the new Atlanta-based organization that aims to be “Georgia’s voice for LGBTQ health.”
“Whether it is because of actual discrimination expressed by an uncaring provider or the internalized dread of what might happen in the vulnerable setting of a doctor’s exam room, LGBT individuals are still less likely to seek healthcare,” she said.
Seeking healthcare too late can contribute to a variety of health conditions worsening, requiring more intervention or with a poorer prognosis.
This is especially concerning in a community that also faces increased health risks: Evidence suggests higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use, as well as anxiety and depression, among LGBT people (likely fueled by the bias we face) — as well as higher rates of HIV for gay and bisexual men, obesity for lesbians, and the side-effects of hormone therapy for transgender people.
The goal of the Health Initiative is to close those gaps, through health education, support groups, advocacy and linking LGBT people to affordable, inclusive health care providers.
The new agency, which launched in late 2011 and is still transitioning into its new role, has its roots in the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer Initiative, founded in 1996.
ALCI later expanded its scope to become the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative, covering a broader range of issues. Last year, leaders knew they needed to expand again — this time to include gay men and transgender people.
“It was time, and the need was there. Our experience and understanding of the health issues facing the LGBT community have shifted,” Ellis said.
Many aspects of healthcare for LGBT people are much better than they were in 1996: “We have access to insurance through domestic partner benefits, our healthcare providers are LGBT friendly — or even LGBT themselves. If we do face a health crisis, the mainstream support groups are increasingly open and welcoming,” she notes.
But that isn’t always the case.
“If you add just one extra challenge to the mix — economics, lack of insurance, age, race, any gender variance, even geography — LGBT individuals suddenly find themselves behind a very big eight ball when it come to healthcare,” Ellis notes.
Rather than create entirely separate LGBT health providers, the Health Initiative’s approach is to educate mainstream providers to make sure they understand and serve their LGBT patients, while also helping link LGBT people with these providers.
“We’re in the beginning stages of a strategic plan that will further define the Health Initiative, as we broaden our circle in terms of geography, programs and client community,” Ellis said. “There is more to come, for all of us.”
Health Initiative services
Health Fund/Health Fairs
The Health Fund can help provide access to healthcare for uninsured and under-insured LGBT people. The range of services available under the program is broad, from traditional STD testing to full physical, when appropriate. Through partnerships with low-cost clinics, the fund can provide pap smears and mammograms, cervical exams and prostate exams. It can also assist on a case-by-basis in addressing specific needs.
Periodic Health Fairs provide a wide variety of screenings, again, free to participants.
If you need a doctor who is inclusive and informed about the LGBT community, the Health Initiative website features a provider directory listing physicians in more than two dozen specialties ranging from general practice and dentistry to oncology and psychiatry. Developed over many years, it continues to grow and expand, and will soon include alternative care service providers, such as chiropractors. Any healthcare provider can apply.
Online Health Assessment
The Lifestyle Link Health Assessment poses a series of questions about health history and behaviors, creating a personalized overview of health issues faced by the individual taking it. A report is generated that makes suggestions on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle or what steps to take to make improvements. With the report, individuals can then access the Health Resource Center for information and referrals for resources in the areas where they work and live.
The Health Initiative regularly hosts support and networking groups. That includes programs of the Health Initiative, such as SAGE Atlanta, as well as groups whose missions align in improving health, such as Weight Watchers. The Health Initiative welcomes 12 Step groups and a host of others, including domestic violence survivors, coming out and bereavement support.
Fourth Tuesday is the Health Initiative’s social network for women. More than 25 years old, it is a diverse group that serves as a social and community support for local women.
Real BOIS Talk
Through Real BOIS Talk, African American masculine identified lesbians have an opportunity to develop a community of support and create messages of health that are responsive to their needs.
SAGE Atlanta works to improve the overall quality of life of LGBT seniors; to support and advocate for the rights of LGBT seniors; to foster a greater understanding of aging in all communities; and to promote positive images of LGBT life in the later years. SAGE Atlanta is a member of the SAGE USA affiliate network. It is committed to providing service, advocacy, and raising community awareness of issues concerning LGBT seniors.
Top photo: The Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative announced its evolution to the broader Health Initiative, serving the entire LGBT community, at the organization’s annual Fall Garden Party in September 2011. (by Dyana Bagby)