Annual discussion focuses on the future of health care in the transgender community.
July 20, 2015
By Julyssa Lopez
Transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their journeys with the world and brought the trans community out of the shadows, but there’s one story activists say must be told: how difficult health care access is for transgender people.
The George Washington University’s LGBT Graduate Certificate Program took on the issue and convened a panel discussion last Wednesday that served as both an opportunity to illuminate the issue and to celebrate the program’s incoming class.
A dynamic panel included star activists from end-to-end. Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Mara Keisling sat alongside Ruby Corado, a transgender advocate who founded the LGBT youth shelter Casa Ruby in D.C. Ilan Meyer, senior scholar for public policy at UCLA's School of Law, and Naseema Shafi, deputy executive director at Whitman-Walker Health, brought their expertise in health and research to the conversation. LGBT Graduate Certificate Program Director Stephen Forssell moderated the event.
Ms. Keisling outlined some bleak facts: Transgender people are disproportionately uninsured, unemployed and four times more likely than the general population to be living on less than $10,000 a year. The last 15 years have offered some gains, including less exclusions on medical treatments, Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act’s anti-discrimination clause. But U.S. health care is inherently unequal, Ms. Keisling said, and it takes work to solve problems in such an unbalanced system.
“It's important we keep working to fix the overall system," she said. “The LGBT movement and the trans movement, as we’re going forward, have to be reconceived as not a marriage equality movement, but as a movement for people in everything that they are. I believe we have an obligation to fight for social justice, and I believe we have an obligation to win.”
One major problem is that health care providers are often unfamiliar with treating trans patients. Ms. Corado explained that mainstream approaches aren’t always right for trans individuals.
“If the book says it’s done this way, it’s probably not going to work for me,” she said.
D.C. is one of eight jurisdictions that allow Medicaid to cover trans services. Still, health providers in the District face difficulty referring patients to surgeons familiar with trans procedures. Ms. Shafi talked about Whitman-Walker’s advocacy and training efforts to recruit quality doctors who have experience working with the trans community.
But one of the most significant things care providers can do, Ms. Shafi added, is to listen to patients carefully and treat them as unique individuals. She described how one doctor at Whitman-Walker begins her sessions with patients by saying, “I’m so excited for you.”
“On Monday, when she said that to a patient, the patient started to cry and said, ‘You are? No one has ever been excited for me so far,’” Ms. Shafi said.
It’s a move toward improving trans health care, but there is still work to be done. All the panelists agreed that while incremental progress is helpful, it’s not enough.
“We have to keep doing more and better and faster and now,” Ms. Keisling said.
Many of the students in the LGBT certificate program are doing just that. The forum included a brief awards ceremony, where alumnus Jeff Goodman, who earned a certificate from GW last year, received recognition for working on a series of anti-LGBT-bullying recommendations adopted by the American Public Health Association. Lore Espinoza Guerrero, B.A. ’12, who earned a certificate this year, was honored for the research and volunteer project Tacones Morados (“Purple Heels”) created to support homeless transgender women in Bogota, Colombia.
"The work our students do through their capstone projects and beyond is crucial because it has a real impact on real people. The skills and experiences they get through the program set them up to act as agents of positive change for years to come," Dr. Forssell said.