LGBT health is about life and death.
While that statement seems dramatic, when we see LGBT youth are far more likely to have attempted suicide and to be homeless; lesbians are less likely than straight women to get preventive services for cancer; gay men, particularly men of color, experience far higher rates of HIV infection; and transgender men and women are far less likely to have health insurance, it’s not a hyperbolic statement.
These are only a few examples of the health disparities the LGBT community faces. Ensuring our community has access to quality health care is about life and death, and as a community we should understand what has been done to address these health disparities and what we can do in the future to improve our own health.
Recently, we joined several other LGBT health experts from advocacy to policy to research along with private foundations who fund work in this space. We challenged each other to think about what we need to do to make our community healthier. Organized by the Sellers Dorsey Foundation and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, we worked with media, press, and communications experts to get creative about how we can address the root causes of disparities and educate our community, health care providers, and policy makers.
We are not starting from ground zero. Through advocacy, our community has made significant strides over the past three years. Most notably, we welcomed the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care reform law signed into law by President Obama in 2010, which contains numerous provisions that are already helping to end disparities. The law, as being implemented by this administration, extends federal nondiscrimination protections to health care for the first time. The ACA provides for increased data collection and bars insurers from denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions, which is significant for transgender individuals and people living with HIV, and helps make prescriptions more affordable—also a huge boon to people living with HIV/AIDS. The law also paves the way for much-needed research into the causes of these health disparities.
There is no question that the ACA goes a long way towards beginning to close health disparities. The Center for American Progress has identified all the provisions mentioned above, as well as more that also promise to benefit the health of LGBT Americans. But today, the fate of the ACA is on the line. Within days, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the law will stand and if our community will continue to have these tools to improve health into the future. From our perspective, losing these tools would be a significant setback, but one that cannot erase the progress we and many others have made toward ending the disparities that harm our community’s health.
Whichever way the Supreme Court rules on the validity of the ACA, one thing is certain: We need to continue to address LGBT health disparities with a laser-like focus and through a multi-disciplinary approach. Sure policy work on the federal and state level needs to continue, as does research. Educating our community is another avenue, so is training health care providers to provide culturally competent care to the community.
When we set aside policy and politics and look at our own community, the focus of our work needs to go beyond policy change. We must reach out and address the fundamental issues that result in different health outcomes for the LGBT community. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, family and community rejection, ignorance and misinformation in the media and in health settings are just the beginning of our work.
We all walked out of our meeting with a renewed sense of purpose to create ways to reach everyday LGBT people to take their own health more seriously and understand the impact of stigma and discrimination on their physical and mental health, something that seems so basic is critical to our moving forward.
The landscape has shifted. The message that these disparities exist and that they need to be addressed is no longer just contained to a small group of LGBT organizations—it has penetrated the wider health and policy world. The administration has not only listened but also has taken action on several fronts to address LGBT health, including protecting hospital visitation rights for our community. As we look toward the International AIDS Conference coming to Washington in July and of course the impending Supreme Court decision, we redouble our efforts to keep moving forward, not back. Think about your own health, and join us.
HECTOR VARGAS is executive director of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, which hosts its 30th Annual Conference on LGBT health issues in September.
HUTSON W. INNISS is the executive director for the National Coalition for LGBT Health. Its next annual meeting will be held November 12th and 13th in Washington, D.C