By Barrett White
Lesbian Visibility Week is observed each year on April 26 – May 2.
Lesbian Visibility Week has been observed every April 26 – May 2 since 2008. Here locally, the lesbian community has a long history of activism, community building, and endless strength in the work for LGBTQ+ equity: one of the last 19 remaining lesbian bars in the nation, Pearl Bar, is right here in Houston on Washington Avenue. Lesbians Over Age Fifty (LOAF) has been a staple in the ageing lesbian social network since the 1980s. And of course, Houston became the first major U.S. city to elect an openly lesbian mayor with the election of Mayor Annise Parker in 2010.
On this day of observance, Legacy recognizes our patients, employees, and volunteers who identify as lesbian and their contributions to society and culture, and highlight health issues in the community that we aim to address.
In a lot of ways, lesbian women have the same healthcare needs as any woman, regardless of sexuality. Unlike straight women however, lesbians are at higher risk for obesity, certain cancers, substance use, and depression.
Issues relevant to all women, such as intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may also affect lesbian women differently. These differences in health care are perpetuated by social stigma and discrimination, which can inhibit a woman’s access to health care.
Dr. Vandana Shrikanth, a primary care physician at Legacy Montrose, says that the most common issue among lesbian patients is adherence to appointments, or even scheduling them in the first place.
“If you don’t feel safe or empowered in a certain space, you’re less likely to make that appointment,” she says, adding that many lesbian patients she has treated have expressed distrust with medicine if clinic staff aren’t inclusive. This is true across the LGBTQ+ community, but especially prevalent among gender diverse individuals and lesbians, Dr. Shrikanth has observed.
While there is much literature online about the health of heterosexual men and women (and to a lesser extent, gay men), there is not much to be found on the specific health concerns of lesbians. In fact, in a qualitative study called “Healthcare Experiences of Underrepresented Lesbian and Bisexual Women”, the authors found that “providers compromise care for [lesbian and bisexual] women when they do not create safe and encouraging environments for their patients to disclose their sexual orientations.” This is just one instance that highlights the importance of competent care for LGBTQ+ patients.
The publication continues, “Rates of nondisclosure to healthcare providers are 32.6% for bisexual women and 12.9% for lesbians. Medical settings welcoming disclosure increase the likelihood of [lesbian and bisexual] women to seek and obtain necessary and appropriate healthcare.” Legacy Montrose, a clinic that is grounded in the LGBTQ community, and providers like Dr. Shrikanth, are trying to change that narrative of care.
Getting lesbian-identifying individuals into care isn’t enough, though. For providers with lesbian patients, it’s crucial to understand the needs and risks of the community, and to properly screen for them – as providers do for any other community.
A common misconception among lesbians however, is that HPV screenings are deemed unnecessary due to the lack of male partners. This is dangerous, Dr. Shrikanth says, because HPV, if left undiagnosed and unaddressed, can lead to cervical cancer in the long term. And while lesbians – generally – are at a lower risk of certain illnesses such as HIV, other concerns that see higher prevalence in the lesbian community include hepatitis C and bacterial vaginosis. “It’s always best practice to remember that regular STI screening is a responsible safe-sex practice, regardless of sexual preference,” Dr. Shrikanth says.
Legacy affirms patients of all identities who pass through our doors, judgement free.
To schedule an appointment for adult primary care or STI testing, call (832) 548-5000 or visit www.LegacyCommunityHealth.org.