Imagine you and your partner are taking your gravely ill child to an emergency room. You discover that your partner will not be allowed into the treatment area because they’re not a biological parent. Never mind that your partner splits parenthood with you 50/50 and knows as much or more about the health history of your child. Because of hospital policy, or at the discretion of the healthcare provider, your partner is asked to remain in the waiting room.
You wonder, as you sit by your child’s hospital bed wishing your partner were there, if adoptive parents are treated the same way. It is then you realize the difference between their families and yours: The law protects their parental rights because they have the “right” combination of genitalia in their relationship.
The organizers of this years Pride Festival hope to make such scenes a thing of the past in Oklahoma City. The proceeds from this year’s event will go towards building a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) health clinic in the heart of OKC’s gay community.
OKC Pride President, Kirk Martin, said people who identify as LGBT have health concerns specific to the community. Discrimination or fear of discrimination can be a factor discouraging LGBT patients from seeking treatment or getting routine check-ups, which can lead to missed opportunities.
According to the National LGBT Cancer Network, the diagnosis of breast cancer in lesbians may be higher because these women are not comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation with their physician for fear of discrimination. Studies indicate a consistent trend: women in this group often forgo routine screenings. Not disclosing their orientation means that their physicians, biased or not, have no way of knowing that they need to talk about certain risk factors with them. Additionally, some insurance companies don’t cover same-sex couples, which can make treatment cost prohibitive for some families.
OKC Pride media representative Josh Sauer said gay men are at an increased risk for depression, substance abuse, AIDs, and HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 19 percent of men who have sex with men (MSM) in a study of 21 major U.S. cities is infected with HIV. That’s one in five. Nearly half (44 percent) of those men are unaware of their infection. Getting tested or treated for diseases that already carry the burden of social stigma makes seeking help difficult. Throw in sexual orientation and the tendency to withold vital information from health care providers, and the challenge of seeking and receiving adequate health care becomes twofold.
Sauer said that OKC Pride’s mission is education, awareness, and health. Organizers and volunteers have been educating the community about and raising money for the LGBT health center during Pride weekend.
Martin said OKC Pride organizers have been drawing up plans for the health center for close to two years. Currently, they are in negotiations to buy the land and will use funds generated by Pride weekend to purchase the site. He said they hope to reach their initial fiscal goal by the end of 2011. Martin estimates it will be another two or three years before they raise the money needed to build the facility.
“So far our community has responded very generously,” Martin said, “We have a number of underwriters and sponsors. We expect tens of thousands of people over the course of the weekend to come out and enjoy our Pride celebration. And we expect they’ll respond generously as well.”
Martin said OKC Pride initially recognized the need for the health center and will continue to support the project, but once it is built the organization will focus on planning Pride festivities. Another 501-c3 entity will be created to operate the health center. Martin said the future LGBT health care staff would be trained to sensitively handle the needs of all who seek treatment at the facility.
“In our health center the default assumption when you walk through the door will be that you are a part of the LGBT community,” he said, “You won’t have the social stigma or the cultural barrier to overcome when talking to your health care provider. You can be totally honest about your situation.”
For now, OKC Pride has invested great effort in organizing the 2011 Pride weekend. With help from sponsors, they brought in The Pointer Sisters to headline Friday’s Block Party. OKC Pride organizers asked comedian ANT, who headlines Saturday night’s show and is this year’s OKC Pride Grand Marshall and spend a weekend raising awareness in Oklahoma.
ANT said he’s been to many pride events across the nation from LA Pride to NY Pride, but decided to get involved in Oklahoma because OKC Pride wasn’t trying to raise funds for next year’s festivities, but rather build an LGBT Health Center.
When asked if he’s ever experienced discrimination when seeking medical treatment, he cracks a joke.
“Not when seeking medical treatment,” he said, “but I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable while getting a massage. When they asked me if I wanted a happy ending, I told them this is going to be awkward because you’re female.”
When pressed, ANT does share that a close friend benefited from the services of a LGBT facility. The friend did not have health insurance, but took ANT’s suggestion to go to a free Gay and Lesbian clinic in West Hollywood, which is when he was diagnosed. ANT said his friend is alive today because of that service.
ANT said that the community takes care of its own, and he loves that OKC Pride had straight people on its board of directors too. He thinks the most important aspect of this year’s Pride is visibility, citing the importance of young gay, lesbian and closeted people to seek support from their community.
“You can come out and when you look behind you, you’ll see thousands of people and thousands and thousands of hands saying you’re not going to fall on our watch,” ANT said, “and that’s all the gay community has is their visibility.”
If the massive crowds who braved triple digit heat to show their support for the community is any indication, this story will have a very different kind of happy ending.