By Libby Post
With both my parents gone, we’ve started our own Thanksgiving tradition – either my partner, Lynn, and I gather with our son, Alex, his dad and stepmom, and a few assorted others, or we go down to New Jersey to be with a group of my friends from elementary school days. Yes, there’s a small group of us still in touch – three of us are dykes (there must have been something in the water in Plainview, on New York’s Long Island), and one of us is married – all of us have had biological children, except for me. I got my son as part of the package deal when his mother came into my life.
This year we’re going to New Jersey. You see, one of the dykes in the group, Nancy, who happened to be my best friend in first grade, recently had major breast cancer surgery. Despite the fact that Nancy has had a biological son, is a health-care professional herself and watches for signs of anything, and doesn’t smoke or drink, the shoe we’ve all been waiting to drop did about two months ago.
Her mom died of breast cancer when Nancy was in her early 20s. We’ve all known Nancy’s risk factor was high, but were hoping she’d dodge that proverbial bullet. That’s not the case.
In a sense, Nancy was very lucky. Her cancer was detected early. She had the appropriate surgery and follow-up care, and is planning on cooking us all Thanksgiving dinner.
However, according to Kathleen DeBold, the executive director of The Mautner Project, the national lesbian health organization, many more lesbians are not as fortunate.
“All the negative attitudes towards gays and lesbians in the mainstream are reflected in health care,” she told me in a recent interview. These attitudes, coupled by other barriers to health care, such as being underemployed and, thus, being either under- or uninsured, DeBold explained, lead many lesbians not to get the health care they need.
The idea that lesbians don’t receive the quality care they should just because of their sexual orientation is, to my mind, criminal. Now, I know there are many of us who have a healthy distrust of Western medicine and only ascribe to herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic, and other alternative medical models. However, when push comes to shove and you need to avail yourself of modern medical technology, there should be no barriers because of whom you wake up with every morning.
Coming out to your doctors has to be rule number one. Yet DeBold says many of us don’t because we’re afraid of what might happen to that information. “Who has the information if you come out to your doctor? If you work in a factory, do you come out to the factory nurse and risk losing your job?” It is a dilemma, and one that can be life threatening if you stay in the closet.
According to the Mautner website (www.mautnerproject.org), real and perceived bias by health-care providers stops lesbians from getting the care they need. Research has shown that way too many of us wait until our symptoms are at their worst before seeking care. Mautner’s own 2003 Spirit Study found that 20 percent of African-American lesbians or women who partner with women delay seeking care because they are afraid their providers will be homophobic.
Homophobia may indeed be present among health-care providers, but this is one of those situations where a dyke needs to be a dyke and take some control. If you don’t know of lesbian-friendly doctors in your area, ask around. That’s what I did in 1978, and I’ve been with the same physician ever since.
The fact of the matter is that, while no disease has been shown to be specific to lesbians, we are at greater risk for some. We’re two to three times more likely to develop breast cancer because of various behavioral factors, such as being overweight, drinking, smoking, not taking birth control, and not having kids the old-fashioned way.
You may think that, because you haven’t had sex with a man since high school, you don’t need to check for cervical cancer. Not true, according to DeBold. If you smoke, have any kind of hetero sex history, or have had multiple sex partners or a history of STDs, you need an annual exam, no matter how tame your life might be today.
One of Mautner’s goals is to break down the barriers to lesbian health care. They train the Centers for Disease Control on how to be more culturally competent when dealing with lesbians, and have developed a curriculum that teaches health-care providers to create more welcoming spaces.
DeBold knows this will take time. “Until society changes, we really need to watch out for each other.” How true. So, when we gather for Thanksgiving and count our blessings, let’s keep an eye on each other as well, and make sure our partners, friends, and family members get the health care they need and deserve.