There are an estimated 700,000 people in this country who consider themselves transgender. Add in those who are openly gay, lesbian or bisexual and the number rises to nine million. They find growing acceptance in society, but many people – including doctors and nurses -- remain uncomfortable when dealing with the LGBT community. That’s why UVA is hosting a special conference on May 10th.
Ken White is an associate dean of nursing at the University of Virginia. He’s also a gay man, yet no doctor has ever asked about his sexual history, and he knows many health care professionals who are even more uncomfortable with transgender men and women.
“They don‘t know what to say," he explains. " They don’t want to make a mistake, so they don’t say anything, and that makes patients feel isolated.”
Even the medical forms they have to fill out are unsettling:
“So male, female – what if you identify as gender fluid?" he wonders. "There’s no box for that.”
This population is already prone to depression and suicide, and White cites a survey showing one-third of transgender patients were unhappy with the way a medical professional had treated them.
“And 23% did not see a doctor when they needed to because of the fear of being mistreated as a transgender person,” White says.
So he helped organize UVA’s first conference on how to serve LGBT patients. Participants will discuss the best language to use when talking with this diverse group and will explore practical concerns.
“A good example would be trans men – do they need a pap smear, or trans women – do they need a prostate exam?”
White knows American culture is changing. He sees that in his students.
“They’ve grown up with Will and Grace, and in fact I accidentally outed myself one time when I was giving a talk, because I said ‘he’ when I was talking about my husband, and nothing happened!”
But for those who are not yet comfortable with LGBT patients, he hopes the symposium will help.