LGBTQI Young People on the Doorstep of Health Care: Understanding Obstacles and Increasing Access

LGBTQI Young People on the Doorstep of Health Care: Understanding Obstacles and Increasing Access

by Lani Blechman, CLPP Program/Communications Coordinator

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I sat on three airplanes and traveled over 5,500 miles. Then it was Sunday and I was in Europe for the first time ever. I spent the next eight days in Strasbourg, France with 35 of my peers – queer youth activists under 30 who represented the majority of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states and a few non-European countries. We were invited to discuss how to challenge heteronormativity in health care and build a framework for creating health care access for LGBTQI youth, in a meeting sponsored by the Council of Europe and hosted by IGLYO (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth and Student Organization).

Over the next week, we engaged in large group discussions, small group discussions, forum theater, simulations, collage-making, presentations, fishbowls, shared meals, home groups, energizing activities, and lectures by experts (who were promptly dismantled and challenged by a room full of critical youth) to build a shared understanding of exactly what values and experiences we have in common and where we differ. The end result was an amazingly solid foundation and network of relationships that has so far fostered an informal, international network of health, medical, and herbal advice; articles and blogs in Poland, Croatia, and the U.S. (to name a few); joint research and writing that is in the works across oceans and borders; and an international exchange of postcards and stickers.

What made this week possible and successful was the attention given to bringing as many different, directly affected stakeholders together. Those of us who convened are community activists, students, nurses, doctors, researchers, labor organizers, sex educators, designers, journalists, opera singers, and marketers. We have been trained in universities, medical schools, and military academies, and through support and opposition in our home communities.

During one of our first shared hours together, we established ground rules. With so many (outspoken) people coming together, we created pages of ground rules – enough so that there was at least one or two that challenged each of us. The ground rule that I struggled with during that entire week – and that I continue to struggle with – stated, “We are people, not our countries.”

On one level, this written rule forced me to identify when I was allowing my personal judgments about a country’s political history to influence my opinion of the individual person standing right in front of me. I continued to check myself all week long. 

These six words also challenged me to think about how I could contribute my individual experiences and perspectives (and the experiences and perspectives of my communities in the U.S.) while also recognizing the dominance of the United States in global politics and health care, and the privilege that I experience as a U.S. citizen. If I was one of the most prominent speakers in a given discussion, was I reinforcing 200 years of international dominance? 

I heard directly from medical students, doctors and activists from all over Europe describe ways that the U.S.-written DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the drug and health policies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration affect how they can provide and access health services. I couldn’t help but think of how the DSM (which defines trans and gender non-conforming identities as an illness) and the U.S.’s history of international and domestic sterilization abuse have contributed to current policies throughout Europe that require trans people to get sterilized in order to access coverage for gender affirming medical care and surgeries. On top of all this, I was one of four people who had learned English as our first language, out of the 35 people who convened in English for a week. 

It was within this context and within this growing understanding that my peers at the convening teased me for being from the U.S., and because my country’s language contains ridiculous phrases like “drug store.” It was within this context that my international peers held a space for me to continue to challenge myself and also recognize how informed and interconnected our current and future work is. 

As we continued to build a larger understanding of our various values and contexts, it became clear – partly through a presentation entitled “The Human Rights Ballet” – that the right to health care is a universal notion recognized by the legislative policies of every single country represented at the convening, with the exception of the U.S. Similarly, most of the countries’ laws had very strong connections with international human rights policies and tribunals – with the exception of the U.S. Unfortunately, what was true for all of us was that there is a huge disconnect between policy and implementation, between policy and access. One of our collective visions is to bring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights physically to every hospital – everywhere. 

After eight days, I left Strasbourg with a heart full of sweet moments of inspirational surprise – like when one person said to me, “I heard a rumor that incarcerated people can’t vote in the U.S. That can’t be true!” (Unfortunately it is. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow prisoners to vote, and ten states permanently disenfranchise at least some people with criminal convictions.) 

I came home to Massachusetts to find 33 new friends on Facebook! (One person at the meeting is not on Facebook – yet.) The Facebook status updates and emails that I wake up to each day continually remind me of my new network of people who reinvigorate me with hope for universal health care coverage in the U.S., and whom I know I can trust with solidarity work and joint projects because we have built a strong foundation of both shared values and clearly articulated differences.

Lani facilitates local movement building work, organizes the annual conference, and manages outreach efforts. Lani has worked with CLPP for the past five years - as a student leader, trainer, on special convenings and as operations staff. Lani is a collective member of Translate Gender and on the advisory board of the Prison Birth Project.

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