Sunday, June 16, 2013

Philadelphia Trans Health Conference

My Experience at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference

I just returned from my first Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.  As I look at my keyboard, screen and keyboard again, I wonder where to  start .  How can I begin describe this amazing event that triggered so many different emotions? How I can possibly put it into words.

The Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference (PTHC) was founded in 2002 by a group of transgender activists, allies, and service providers.  It started with 150 participants and now has approximately 3,000 attendees and 210 workshops over three days.  Held at the Philadelphia Conference Center, there is no charge to attend the conference which is sponsored primarily by the Mazzoni Center.

I attended as a speaker  to hold the PULSE of NY,Family Centered Patient Advocacy Training. In the context of this training, I shared the work we do  to advocate for transgender patients during hospitalizations and medical care . I shared what we have learned about the obstacles for receiving safe, quality healthcare we have heard through our discussions, interviews and support groups,.  My workshop was attended by nursing students and social workers looking to learn more about advocating for the transgender patient.

Besides my session, I attended  several workshops and met many interesting and friendly people; I  learned more than I could have ever taught.  The themes of the workshops focused on topics for the transgender person such as surgeries, support services, insurance, laws and empowerment.  Most of these programs were open to providers as well as the community.  It was amazing how people learned from each other.   Some sessions were intentionally closed so participants could share among themselves in a safe environment.

Transgender is an umbrella term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving people who vary from culturally conventional gender roles.   Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual  As some have said, it is not who you love (your sexual orientation- such as gay, bisexual or lesbian) it is who you are (gender identity).   An “alphabet soup” of achronyms are used to represent the LGBT population including LGBTQIAAQ, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Ally, Asexual, Queer.  These terms describe people who not just live but are born different than what many people call the “norm,” e.g identifying with our birth sex and being attracted to members of the opposite sex. Just as some people like spicy food and some don’t, the gender identity is what makes us who we are.  At birth our parents are told we are either a boy or a girl.  It’s time to recognize that the sex organs do not make the person.

The Philadelphia Trans Conference  there were hundreds, if not thousands of LGBT and non-LGBT people.  Some people at the conference love someone who is LGBT, while others attended to understand  better to include LGBT people in their work.  In many cases, the only way to recognize someone who was born a woman and went through the sex reassignment surgery to fully live as the man they were born to be is that they sit in front of the room and talk about their sex reassignment surgery  their life during their transition or mention, casually in their lecture that they were not born in the body they now have.  Some wear t-shirts that describe their transition or hint that their identity at birth was not what we see now.   

Some people share differently.  A person who resembles Clint Eastwood, Rocky Balboa or Morgan Freeman may be in a flowing feminine skirt, pink blouse, no makeup and heels.  Or, they may be in tight leather with lots of makeup, many piercings and blue, orange or (and) green hair, or any combination of the above.  Others looked like every day business people in their Saturday dress to go on a family outing.

Name tags have the person’s name and preferred gender; “he/him” or “she/her” or some had “they/them” which is very important for transgender people since many wish to pass as the gender to which they most identify. 

There were children who seemed as young as 5 years old.  I saw a child I know from Long Island who is about 8 years old and living a perfectly normal and happy childhood with her family as a little girl.  These children at this conference felt safe and loved for who they are – not for what society thinks they should be.

Our society likes labels.  However, despite the alphabet soup of terms and acronyms that could be applied, I learned the simple fact that no matter one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, we are all people.  

The common theme that I saw in the workshops was that many trans people did not feel “safe” when using the healthcare system.  Imagine anyone of the people I described stepping foot into the emergency room.    Though he may have a perfectly good job, health insurance or loving support system at home, the first reaction of anyone might be to stare.   And though you (and they) may be used to the staring, it is the comments and inappropriate remarks that can be hurtful and insensitive especially if it comes from the people from whom you are seeking care.

One person shared a story that when he went to the doctor for a sore throat, the doctor said he doesn’t treat transgender people.  Another person said that because she wanted a private room instead of being put in a room with male patients, she was labeled as disruptive.

A professional person said that when she told the clinician she was a lesbian, the clinician didn’t believe that she had no sexually transmitted diseases.  

Some, with no one to support them because their family is not there for them for a variety of reasons, said they don’t feel safe when going to a doctor’s office for treatment.  Many questioned how to find someone who won’t judge them.

One workshop addressed diseases that are passed through sharing needles.  These diseases are not only transmitted from IV drug abuse but some transgender people may share needles to use hormones obtained illegally. 

I learned of many of these experiences through my work as an advocate and the Long Island Patient Safety Advisory Council  which addresses, among other groups of people the transgender community and their rights to safe patient care.  Despite my previous exposure to these issues, to hear so many more stories it brings alive the studies by National Center for Transgender Equality make me realize we have a long way to go to teach tolerance to even some of the most educated peopleSome facts from the 2010 study:

   Subjects seeking health care were denied equal treatment in doctor’s offices and hospitals (24%), emergency rooms (13%), mental health clinics (11%), by EMTs (5%), and in drug treatment programs (3%).

   8% of respondents were subjected to harassment in medical settings.

   Very high levels of postponing medical care when sick or injured due to discrimination (28%).

   Over a quarter of the respondents misused drugs or alcohol specifically to cope with the discrimination they faced due to their gender identity or expression.

These numbers are staggering and show the need for medical professionals to be trained in sensitivity and educated on the needs of the transgender community.  The cost of healthcare is high, but much of it can be changed with a safe place for people to go where they won’t feel judged, ridiculed or made to feel unsafe and get early care and treatment.  This is a journey I don't take lightly.  I hope others will join me in it.


Ilene Corina with Jacsen Callanan Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference
 Logistical Coordinator

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