Doctors in the U.K. will soon start asking patients over the age of 16 about their sexuality, as part of a new National Health Service strategy.
The news has prompted discussions about going to the doctor as an LGBT person—and, in particular, the uninformed questions health-care providers often ask queer women.
For years studies have shown that lesbians face worse health outcomes, in part, because doctors are not informed. Queer women are also more likely to avoid getting medical treatment because of concerns about being dismissed or discriminated against.
Once, as a college freshman, I went to the student health clinic for a routine check-up. I hadn’t established a primary care doctor away from home, so the health center seemed like my best bet.
The doctor—a tall, lean women with hard eyes and a tight-lipped smile, interrogated me about my medical history. Fair enough, I figured—we’d never met before, and she had to get my background. When she asked if I was sexually active, I told her I was in a monogamous relationship with another woman. I was a lesbian, I explained, and never had sex with a man.
Instantly, I felt the room tense up. The doc looked me up and down and asked, “Well, are you on birth control?”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t need it.”
“Well,” the doctor said, staring at her chart, “you should consider it. You know, just in case.”
What part of “I’m a lesbian” did she not understand? Did she think I’d change my mind? Or worse, was she suggesting I’d probably be sexually assaulted?
That was three years ago. To this day, I still have no clue what she meant. I didn’t tell confront her at the time or tell anyone about the experience for months. I was embarrassed and confused—and frustrated that a doctor, a woman no less, treating students on my queer-friendly campus could be so presumptuous.
That’s just one example of the uninformed, inappropriate, and sometimes flat-out rude encounters I’ve had with medical professionals because of my sexuality.
The same doctor once suggested a partner “gave” me a yeast infection, even though yeast infections, while transmittable, aren’t akin to STIs—and the partner in question didn’t have an infection to “give” me.
In a country where some 9 million Americans identify as LGBT, I’m still stunned: Shouldn’t doctors have a basic understanding of non-heterosexual identities?
Figuring I couldn’t be alone, so I polled some queer women friends about their encounters with clueless medical professionals.
I had a doctor just straight-up refuse to acknowledge that bisexuality exists: He said something like, “You checked bisexual, but you say you’re in a relationship with a woman now. So you’re a lesbian?”
When I explained that, no, I’m bisexual, he replied, “So are you sexually active with men right now?”
“No,” I said, a little aggravated, “I’m in a monogamous relationship with a woman.”
“So you’re a lesbian, for all intents and purposes.”
At the time, I was a baby queer and still felt really insecure about my orientation. I was embarrassed by the whole exchange, so I just said, “Sure.” This happened in San Francisco, of all places—I can only imagine how much worse it would be for someone in a small town.
Anne*, New Paltz, New York
I’m a transgender woman. Nearly every time I go to the doctor, they’ll ask me when my last period was, and I’ll calmly explain that I don’t menstruate. This isn’t a big deal since I present and identify as a woman, and this is a standard question doctors ask female patients. What’s challenging, though, is having to explain that I’m trans every time I go to a doctor, even if it’s not for a gender-related health issue.
Healthcare professionals are honestly pretty clueless until I explain [my situation] to them: If they know I’m on estrogen, they’ll often ask if it’s birth control. I think the hardest time to be trans as a patient was following my confirmation surgery. I needed to find local secondary care, and many doctors were unable to work with me simply because they didn’t have the medical knowledge.
It’s important for doctors to be sensitive to our unique needs, especially in a world where trans folks are more visible and less afraid to live their authentic lives. Basic monitoring of hormone replacement, as well as secondary care after confirming surgeries, should be a standard expectation of doctors [just like] other specific conditions.
With my primary doctors, I often feel like they can provide me with support for just about anything—except for questions I have related to hormones or surgery.
I got a new doctor once who asked me if I was sexually active and how many partners I’d had in the last year. I explained to her that I’d been in a relationship for the past year with a woman, and she said, “Okay, we’ll just put you down as a ’no’ for sexually active, and if anything changes, just let us know!” I was stunned.
And she didn’t ask about my prior sexual encounters, she just assumed—which is also dangerous. [The whole experience] was super-frustrating and invalidating.
Laura*, New York
I’ve been on birth control for cramps for a few years, and it wasn’t really working effectively anymore. So, I asked my OB/GYN if it would make sense for me to stop taking it. She told me I should stay on it for actual birth control reasons, and I told her—for the second time—that I was a lesbian. She basically brushed me off and said, “Well, you never know… “, implying that because I sleep with men before I realized I was gay, that I’d just go back to sleeping with men again in the future.
It was honestly a really frustrating and humiliating experience, and I didn’t even know how to respond. I felt so unheard. It was a deeply homophobic attitude for a doctor to take, further enforcing the idea that [women] will always inevitably be sexually available to men.
Scarlet*, Newburgh, New York
I went to my OB/GYN for my annual checkup after having sex with a woman for the first time, about five years ago. As I had done every year, I filled out the forms—but this time with more “yeses” than “nos.” It actually has a section where you could circle if you slept with men or women.
I’d yet to have an internal exam, so I decided maybe it was time. Right before she started, I said, ’I don’t know if this is important, but I’ve never slept with a man before, only women. Actually, only with one woman, who was also a virgin.’
My doctor looked up slowly, with a look on her face that said, ’My job just got so much easier.’
“Actually, that eliminates about half the things I need to check for,” she replied. “I usually check for bacteria that is mainly from penises.” She began to put a bunch of stuff away and told me that I didn’t need the internal exam after all. But she told me about things that I should still be aware of. She was totally cool with me being a lesbian, and was glad that I was honest. She told me that her patients who come out later usually miss out on information she could have given them way earlier.
This experience was very similar to when I came out to my main physician. Both women told me that it was better to be honest with your doctor than be embarrassed.
*Some responses have been edited and names changed.