Transgender community explores barriers to health care access during summit in Concord

Monitor staff
Published: 11/19/2016 10:47:15 PM

A transgender patient’s search for the right primary care doctor, therapist and specialty care physician can be an uphill battle that leaves many feeling defeated – both emotionally and financially.

On occasion, physicians will publicize that they see transgender patients; other times, they’re hesitant to speak out and so patients find them by word of mouth. And in some instances, doctors may indicate a willingness to provide medical care to those in the transgender community, but acknowledge they’re not quite sure how to do so.

“Education holds the answer in many instances. A lot of it is getting past the fear of the unknown. Our medical needs are not known or understood, and there’s a fear of taking us on,” said Gerri Cannon of Freedom New Hampshire, a nonpartisan coalition devoted to securing equal rights for the state’s transgender residents.

Cannon, a 63-year-old Somersworth resident, kept her gender identity a secret for the first 47 years of her life. Years into her transition from male to female, she is still jumping hurdles to get access to the health care she needs. And she’s not alone.

More than 200 people, roughly a third of them transgender, attended the first-ever TRANSforming New Hampshire Heathcare Summit on Saturday to engage in private conversations about how to access services and navigate the complex world of health care. The day-long event was held at University of New Hampshire Law School in Concord and was presented by Freedom New Hampshire, which partnered with other state organizations and the national campaign, Freedom For All Americans.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, public education director for the national campaign, said the transgender community faces barriers to health care access throughout the U.S., which can force them to travel long distances for doctors appointments or to relocate entirely.

Heng-Lehtinen, who has lived in three states as a transgender male, said the stories of people being denied care are similar – and equally heartbreaking – from coast to coast.

“I know of people who have sought medical care for a health condition, like a broken ankle, and the doctor fixates on the fact that they’re transgender,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “It shouldn’t matter that they’re transgender. We all have basic human needs.”

Both Heng-Lehtinen and Cannon said people in the transgender community are more often than not having to educate their doctors about their specific health care needs.

“The doctor is supposed to educate you,” Heng-Lehtinen said.

But maybe one day that’ll be more commonplace. Heng-Lehtinen said there are doctors who are eager to learn and who want to do better by those in the transgender community. The conference Saturday was proof of that, he said.

JeanMarie Gossard, a campaign manager for Freedom New Hampshire, echoed that point, saying one of the goals of the conference is to connect “trans-friendly” health care providers with patients.

“There are so many people in the transgender community who feel unsafe in their health care environment and that’s the last place where someone should feel that way,” she said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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