Dominick, a disabled transgender man, started making the arrangements for a hysterectomy at age 30. The experience turned out to be a living nightmare—and not just because being disabled had previously presented obstacles to medical care, like being unable to access his gynecologist’s office.
“The doctor,” he says, “sent me home while internally bleeding after the surgery because he needed more beds. He ignored my concerns and dismissed my symptoms as overblown.” He says he almost died when he started hemorrhaging at home.
The horrors of that experience led Dominick to shy away from follow-up care and had profound psychological consequences. “I was afraid to leave my house, for fear I’d start bleeding out. I remember being on a bus to school, completely alone, and having a complete meltdown. I called my girlfriend and was crying and shaking and begging her to come get me.”
While he survived the experience, the trauma lingers to this day—and he’s not alone. For many trans men, dismissive treatment in the gynecologist’s office is part of a larger framework of harmful health-care practices that include verbal and physical abuse and denial of care. Thanks to the finalization of an Affordable Care Act (ACA) rule banning discrimination on the basis of gender, trans patients now stand to access care more easily, but enacting policies against discrimination isn’t quite the same as actually eliminating it. Trans people often face obstacles to care in health-care fields, unless they’re lucky enough to live in a region with a well-organized and structured clinic. Doctors who are ignorant about trans needs, like the imperative of surgical transition for some transgender people, can become dangerous roadblocks. And self-advocacy—including standing up for one’s immediate needs or asking for additional support in cases like Dominick’s—can be exhausting or impossible when continuously faced with such experiences.
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Reproductive health care in particular cuts to the heart of bodily autonomy, something trans people are often already denied in other settings. Yet trans men are frequently left out of the discussion when it comes to accessing services, even as the Women’s Health Network and other organizations, like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), argue that the health needs of people who are assigned female at birth, no matter their gender, are indeed matters for reproductive rights conversations.
When it comes to seeking medical care in general, trans people say they often face ignorance or outright prejudice from medical professionals. A 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 20 percent of survey respondents were denied health care due to their transgender or gender-nonconforming identity—and people of color experienced even more profound disparities. Twenty-eight percent of all respondents said they had been harassed in physicians’ offices, and 2 percent experienced physical violence.
Chillingly, when care providers discovered that their patients were transgender, the incidence of discriminatory attitudes increased. Many didn’t understand the needs of the transgender community, forcing half of the respondents to provide basic education about managing transgender patients. While proactive self-advocacy—being educated about your own health, self-assured at the doctor’s office, and ready to speak up for yourself—can help everyone achieve better health-care outcomes, this goes far beyond advocacy. In a medical culture where people may have difficulty obtaining providers, trans patients can be forced to repeatedly discuss sensitive medical information that can trigger dysphoria and frustration. And gender dysphoria is fatal if untreated: A staggering 41 percent of the trans community has attempted suicide.
While all aspects of medical care are important, reproductive health care sits at the axis of many important oppressions: It determines whether people are able to have families, whether they receive treatment after rape and sexual assault, if potentially serious sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are treated in a timely fashion, or if they can obtain compassionate and appropriate abortion care. And here, too, trans people have reported difficulty when it comes to requesting and receiving breast and cervical cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, fertility care, contraception, abortion and pregnancy care, and other reproductive health needs. When such care is provided, it may come with detrimental comments and practices like misgendering patients or making assumptions about their personal lives.
These are especially important issues for trans people: While transgender women are far and away the most likely to have HIV, with skyrocketing incidence rates thanks to poverty and other social factors, transgender men are also more at risk than the general population. They also have difficulty accessing pregnancy care. Approximately 50 percent of transgender people experience sexual violence, and insensitive care providers managing rape survivors can cause further trauma at a time when patients are particularly vulnerable. Denial of services ties into much larger human rights issues for the transgender community: We are in a climate, after all, where trans women risk bladder infections because they cannot use public restrooms.
But whether people are transgender men, along the nonbinary spectrum, agender, or along other axes of gender and experience, if they aren’t cisgender women, they say their reproductive health needs are often dangerously ignored.
“My first gyno, who was an older woman with all kinds of vocalized homophobic, transphobic, racist, and HIV-ignorant ideas,” says K., “left me so uncomfortable I wouldn’t let anyone touch me between my legs with their hands for a good ten years!” K., who is nonbinary, had a traumatic experience when seeking abortion care, and, like Dominick, wasn’t provided with counseling on the subject of egg storage before starting hormone therapy. “I personally never want to be pregnant again,” K. says, but the very option of freezing eggs and using a surrogate in the future was denied.
And this has real consequences: Trauma in reproductive health services, like that Dominick experienced, can drive transgender people into fearing the health-care system as a whole. Between discrimination and the fear that keeps people out of doctors’ offices, trans people are less likely to get preventive care—like HIV counseling and screening—and more likely to develop complications from delayed care. That includes vitally needed reproductive health services.
Discriminatory practices in gynecological care take place within the framework of another problem for trans people: Even with the ACA’s theoretical increased access to health care, substantial barriers to health-care access remain. Transgender people—particularly women and people of color, but also men to a lesser extent—are four times more likely to live in poverty, thus driving a disproportionate use of Medicaid coverage. As Rewire has reported, 16 states explicitly deny transition-related services under Medicaid coverage. Although the ACA explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, with additional protections for gender-nonconforming individuals now that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has finalized its ruling on Section 1557, that doesn’t always work out in practice. Coverage of transition-related treatment, including hormones and surgery, may be denied as “elective” or “aesthetic” under insurance exclusions. For example, a hysterectomy may be deemed “not medically necessary.” Trans people can be instead forced to sue for their care, as in 2014, when Illinois woman Naya Taylor demanded access to hormones. This is especially true in cases where people have successfully changed the gender markers on their identifications, thereby creating a situation where Medicaid may deny coverage for activities like Pap tests for men or prostate cancer screening for women.
“I’ve got many stories about things that have gone wrong in my interactions with medical professionals,” remarks Everett Maroon, a transgender man who lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and family. “I’ve gotten inappropriate medical advice, incorrect therapies, seen medical and cultural incompetence, dealt with shitty care, not been provided options I should have gotten.” His issues are the health-care system’s issues, and they are a subject that should be of critical concern to everyone fighting for reproductive rights.
Fortunately, that’s growing to be the case more and more. As family medicine physician Cheryl Chastine wrote for Rewire last year, “How can providers or activists dare to presume that every patient we can’t ‘read’ as trans is cis?,” she said, adding “When those in the reproductive justice movement prioritize trans inclusivity, more trans individuals feel comfortable publicly identifying as such.”
Her commentary was just one example of the growing chorus of support from the reproductive rights and justice community as people come to understand that reproductive health needs are complex, and some populations have historically been left out of the equation.
Combating that oversight includes taking on challenges like providing competency training to health-care providers in medical school and beyond—including the recommendations ACOG is putting forward. Trans-competent health training should allow clinicians to put their patients at ease. At minimum, it should include discussions about gender identity and presentation, how to handle medical issues that may trigger dysphoria, how hormones might affect other prescriptions and the patient’s general health, and why trans patients may feel distrustful and uncertain around health-care providers.
It also includes passing comprehensive legislation to affirm that transition care and related medical treatments are covered by private insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare. And it includes robust third-party investigation—regulated by the HHS, whose Office of Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing the ACA’s nondiscrimination protections—of grievance complaints filed by trans patients, such as those made directly at clinics and hospitals in addition to those filed with state licensing boards.
It’s time to take trans health care seriously. Doing so will create a world of radical inclusion where people can feel safe seeking health care wherever they go.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to clarify the fact that Dr. Cheryl Chastine is a family medicine physician.