Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What does a grown man wearing a baby-doll dress have to do with your healthcare? by Michal Klau-Stevens

A few years ago, a critic said something that stuck with me which led me, recently, to an unusual experience. Back when I was president of a national nonprofit organization working to reform maternity care practices, a critic of natural childbirth accused leaders of the reform movement of being insular. She claimed we always heard from the same experts who touted the same studies, and our tunnel vision kept us from viewing the “big picture.” At the time I considered whether she had a point. After all, there was a fairly small pool of experts – the “usual suspects” who published books, appeared in documentaries, and spoke at conferences. Were we operating in a bubble? That critique made me aware of the importance of seeking out other sources of information as a kind of reality check. So earlier this year, when I received an email about The Tenth Annual Transgender Lives: The Intersection of Health and Law Conference being held at the University of Connecticut in April, and saw there were presentations on healthcare advocacy, I was inspired to attend. I was curious what experts who specialize in issues that affect another, very different, population would have to say about healthcare delivery.

I was excited about the prospect of hearing from a whole new group of people who would expand my horizons. For weeks leading up to the conference, I envisioned myself soaking up new information and being re-energized by learning cutting-edge research and ideas. In my mind I pictured myself being totally focused on the speakers in rapt attention.

On the day of the conference I was thrown out of my comfort zone in the parking lot, before I even walked into the building. As I got out of my car, one of the first conference attendees that I saw was a grown man, about 30 years old, wearing a baby-doll dress with a lace bib collar, white eyelet knee socks, mary-jane shoes, with his hair in pigtails. He was carrying a purse over his shoulder. I thought to myself, “Whoa – I guess I’m not in Kansas anymore…” You see, while I envisioned myself at the conference, I had not envisioned anyone else who would be at the conference. I’d been looking forward to learning about healthcare from a new perspective, but didn’t fully anticipate that the perspective would be that of transgender people, who in case you don’t already know, are a bit different from the pregnant women, midwives, and doulas I usually attend conferences with.

Once I got inside the building, I saw that the baby-doll dress was the most radical outfit in the place. Most of the attendees were much more low-key, although the energy of the environment was different from a birth-related conference, and the culture was different too. When I was given a name tag to fill out, I was asked to put my name and which pronouns I prefer to be called on it. I learned that pronouns are a very big deal in the LGBTQ community. The vendor gallery was filled with organizations that offered STD testing, HIV testing and support, mental health services, and legal support. Bright colored condoms were given out along with the usual pens and water bottles. The bathrooms were non-gendered, and frankly, it was sometimes hard to tell who was a man and who was a woman anyway. Once the stall doors closed, it didn't matter. Everyone was very polite and respectful, though. I did overhear more than one person say that this conference was one of the few places they felt safe using a public bathroom, but that’s another blog post.

While so much of the environment felt different to me, when it came to discussions about healthcare, much was similar to what we discuss about maternity care, and about healthcare in general. While technology and surgical techniques have made incredible advances, they are not foolproof, and there is still much more that remains unknown. It is vital to your well-being and your safety to have someone at your bedside to help advocate for you while you are in the hospital. Access to certain kinds of care is challenging and costly. Sometimes doctors and other caregivers are heroic and champion our needs, and other times care is paternalistic, disrespectful, and traumatic. Being able to use your voice, express your preferences, and have them be respected is an important component of good health outcomes. Minority people, people of color, and other oppressed populations do not get the same quality care that upper-class white cisgender men get. The advocacy skills necessary for getting good care are basically the same, whether you are going into the hospital to have gender-confirming surgery, to have a baby, or because of some other health reason, like cancer, heart disease, or other illness.

I learned a number of new things that day, and also confirmed some things I already knew. Hearing from experts outside the field of maternity care assured me that I’m not being insular or looking at healthcare with tunnel vision. There are serious issues with the way healthcare is delivered in this country, and they affect people in similar ways, regardless of the different reasons why people seek care.  Attending that conference was an unusual experience, which expanded my horizons. It reminded me of the value of moving outside my comfort zone and seeking out other people and places to gain valuable perspective.

And that man in the baby-doll dress? They (yes, that’s the right pronoun) are advocating to make healthcare better for you.

Michal Klau-Stevens is a professional speaker and healthcare consumer advocate. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, and expert on consumer healthcare care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother.  Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on LinkedIn and on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!

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