TRANSforming health care: UIC holds transgender health care event

Mary Bowman. Photo courtesy L. Thomson/GSC.

In honor of LGBTQ Health Awareness Week, the University of Illinois at Chicago group UIC Pride hosted Transgender Health 101 March 28, a lecture and discussion on the role health care providers play when treating transgender patients.

“Take off your shoes and switch them around, now put them on … walk around a bit … how does that feel?” asked former Howard Brown Health Center physician and UIC faculty member Dr. Regina Kim. “It’s not right, this is how a lot of people describe how it feels when they’re transgender.”

The lecture, held in conjunction with the UIC Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC), was led by Kim, GSC Assistant Director Liz Thomson and Mary Bowman, co-president of UIC Nurses for Reproductive Health & Justice.

“Just because a person is trans does not mean they will have far-and-away health issues that you’re going to have to address,” said Bowman. “Gender identity is an aspect of a persons identity, it is not their whole identity, and it could have varying effects on their health.”

Well attended by medical and nursing students, the event also brought in a few non-medical students and focused on the disparity transgender people face in health care, and how to better equip health care providers with the knowledge and understanding to develop inclusive care.

“All of us, no matter the geography, field or specialty in health care, will at some point care for a transgender individual or their loved ones,” said Kim. “In fact, one may not even realize they have known or currently know someone who is transgender.”

Thompson, who has over 13 years of experience in higher education and is an LGBTQ advocate and ally, led a portion of the lecture about demystifying the intricacies of the transgender experience, breaking down and explaining often misunderstood terms like genderqueer (someone outside of the male/female binary) and bigendered (one who identifies alternately as male/female).

Thompson also asked the attendees to reflect on their own experience. In a demonstration, participants were asked to grade their biological sex (based on the sex you were born with), gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation on a scale ranging from normatively male/masculine to female/feminine.

“It made me realize that it’s much easier to grade myself on a line than in a box,” said one attendee, referring to the boxes often found on medical charts.

Thomson explained the state of transgender protections in the U.S. and on the UIC campus. While 21 states have non-discrimination laws, including Illinois, only 16 of those state laws include gender identity/expression protections, according to the national Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

“Things happening around transphobia are a lot more public and you can always do more,” said Thompson. “Ultimately we would like everyone to be initiating and preventing [understanding] so we don’t always have to live in a reactive culture.”

Dr. Regina Kim. Photo courtesy L. Thomson/GSC.

The portion of the lecture led by Kim focused on developing gender affirmative health care, sharing stories of many transgender individuals’ experiences that led them to avoid seeking healthcare due to the anxiety it induced. Many of these individuals are forced to “come out” every time they meet a new physician, so often avoid annual — and critical — screenings. Kim provided advice to those individuals.

“Be an active and proactive participant in your health care for it is as unique as you are,” Kim told Chicago Phoenix. “Doing a bit of homework about the provider and your health needs in advance will increase the likelihood that you will have a good experience.”

She also recommends that transgender individuals find a a primary health care provider who is empathetic and holistic rather than waiting for a health crisis to arise. Kim, who has many years specializing in LGBTQ health care also provided advice to the future health care providers themselves.

GSC has made many efforts on the UIC campus to make transgender individuals feel safe by reforming university policy, having gender identity respecting housing, and celebrating national Transgender Awareness Week in November.

Work is still being done to develop more gender neutral bathrooms throughout the Chicago campus.