Tomorrow’s Doctors Not Sure How to Deal with GLBT Health Issues

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday April 11, 2011

A new Stanford University study shows that although tomorrow's physicians are not prejudiced about treating gays and lesbians, they are not entirely sure how to go about doing so, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on April 7.

A new report, Medical Students' Preparedness and Comfort Levels in Caring for LGBT Patients, was presented in New Orleans over the weekend at this year's American Educational Research Association conference. The study found that there are health disparities that affect sexual minorities, and analyzed the responses of over 5,000 students in medical schools across the United States and Canada.

Among other things, the report said, studies have demonstrated that sexual minorities seeking health care are often denied treatment or under-served by medical health professionals. They are also more prone to be treated with hostility by health providers than are heterosexuals.

Summarizing the findings of the survey, the Chronicle found that although medical professionals in training no longer fear dealing with HIV/AIDS patients, they are uneasy about topics like transgender patients' sex-change procedures. Another point of uncertainty was mental health for GLBT patients.

The article reported that a new report from Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy estimates that there are eight million gay., lesbian, and bisexual people in America, along with 700,000 transsexuals.

The Associated Press reported on April 7 that Williams Institute demographer Gary Gates has examined five studies and determined that there are around 4 million gays and lesbians in America. Another 4 million are bisexual.

"One of the major questions, when you think about how many LGBT people are there, is what do you mean by LGBT?" Gates told the AP. "This shows there are pretty big differences between people who use the terms to label themselves versus sexual behavior or attraction."

Gates' estimates do not include as gay people who may occasionally have same-sex encounters, but who identify as heterosexual. But his results do account for that demographic--and suggest that 19 million heterosexual Americans have same-sex encounters, a number that includes gays and bisexuals as well as heterosexuals who identify as straight despite having gay sex.

Gates cautioned that his figures may or may not coincide with reality.

"Yes, this is a credible estimate, but I'm fine to have a debate with someone about whether I'm right or wrong," Gates told the AP. "The academic side of me says everything comes with caveats. But there is a level of power associated with having a number that can move dialogues along and hopefully move things forward."

One trend in today's health care world is that older GLBTs--even those who stood on the vanguard of the sexual minorities' civil rights movement--are retreating back into the closet to avoid being denied medical treatment or even being abused by health care workers.

Anti-gay attitudes by health providers can mirror discriminatory attitudes in other facets of life and serve to further isolate elder GLBTs, noted an April 7 Sharon Patch blog posting.

"An older adult population isn't finding social activities--or, often, proper health care, Sharon Adult Center and Council on Aging Executive Director Norma Simons Fitzgerald says," the blog posting read. "That some consider being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered socially unacceptable is the reason."

The blog posting announced that in an attempt to counteract such attitudes and the negative effect they can have on the health and quality of life of GLBT elders, the Sharon Adult Center and Hessco Elder Services were joining forces with each other and with the Boston-based LGBT Aging Project to create a new program that would help meet the needs of gay elders.

"It's very hard," said Hessco's Jayne Davis, the blog reported. "Because a lot of older LGBT folks are afraid. They're afraid to come out. They've had to be hidden, or they feel as though they've had to be hidden." Added Davis, "That's one of the reasons why we want to organize some type of a forum where they feel welcome."

Davis also said that identifying GLBT elders was even m ore difficult because the federal government refuses to recognize or extend protections to same-sex families.

"When you fill out the census, they ask you if you're married or single," Davis pointed out. "So really, the only way to target it or even get a sense is if there are two older same sex in a household, and even then, it could be two sisters or two brothers."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.