By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
FERNDALE – “Health is a social justice issue,” according to Knoll Larkin, the new health services coordinator for Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center. “It’s our living situation, it’s the air we breathe, it’s our access to transportation.”
And, it’s whether or not the health care provider we go to is welcoming and sensitive to our needs as LGBTs.
Larkin is doing his part to make our community’s experiences with the health care industry as positive as possible.
Larkin, 26, took over the position from Deirdre Shires this summer after graduating from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in public health. Larkin is also no stranger to Affirmations, as he served as a volunteer and then a staff person for the past three years.
It was his own experience coming out as queer at age 13 that drew Larkin to Affirmations.
Other than talking to his parents, “I was pretty quiet,” Larkin said. “There weren’t a lot of services; it was pretty isolated,” in Rochester Hills, the northern Oakland County town where Larkin grew up. Because of the lack of services and support, Larkin stayed quiet until he went away to college at age 18.
“It was just kind of sad,” Larkin said of his isolation as a teenager. “But I think a lot of that changed when I left that area. And it also made me want to work with [Affirmations’] youth program, being as I came from an area where there weren’t that many services and resources.”
Larkin calls the Affirmations staff “a family,” and says that one of the reasons he is so committed to staying with the agency is the support he has received while transitioning on the job from female to male.
“I am passionate about the LGBT community,” Larkin said. “It feels really good to just stay in my community, give back, and also do some outreach to other communities.”
Larkin has ambitious plans for Affirmations’ health services program including expanding the provider referral list, increasing health screenings, and increasing recreational activities that encourage physical activity once the Center moves into its new, larger headquarters across Nine Mile Road.
Larkin won’t just be expanding the provider referral list, however. He also wants to do a survey to find out which of the providers is knowledgeable about the health care needs of transgender individuals. There will also be a holistic health fair in March as well as one geared to allopathic modalities in April.
Larkin said that LGBT individuals face two kinds of barriers to health care – what he calls policy barriers and negative experiences faced by LGBTs at the hands of discriminatory providers.
Policy barriers include, “things like institutionalized heterosexism, exclusions of partners of family of choice from health care settings and decisions, lack of insurance coverage under partners’ policies, and also policies that sanction exclusionary care,” Larkin said.
One sufficiently bad experience with a provider can also have a potentially huge impact on an LGBT individual’s health. While attending a training through the Mauntner Project, which is dedicated to lesbian and bisexual women’s health, Larkin heard the story of a young woman who had gone for a gynecological exam. The woman was answering her provider’s questions prior to the exam and disclosed her bisexual orientation.
At that point the provider left the room and had someone else come in to do the exam. The woman who had that experience didn’t go back to a gynecologist for seven years.
“I think that that’s a good example of one of the top health issues and concerns for people that work in LGBT health – access to care,” Larkin said. “When someone has a bad experience they’re not going to get screened for cervical cancer, they’re not going to get those services that they need for preventative care.
“A lot of people feel like they have to put up with this, or they have to put up with an unwelcoming environment,” Larkin said. “You don’t have to put up with it – there are other options and we’re trying to build those options and train other people. But you do deserve a safe environment. Keep your eyes open, use our referral list, talk to others and know that you do deserve competent care and you don’t have to put yourself in that situation.”