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Fenway Health: A precedent for LGBT health care

Boston, a city with a robust, politically driven and often overlooked LGBT history, is home to one of the most progressive health care institutions in the U.S., providing services to the LGBT community specifically. Founded in 1971 by a group of Northeastern University students, Fenway Health (originally named Fenway Community Health Center) is one of the first, and the largest health care facility in the country with a focused mission to “enhance the well-being of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community […]” and provide the latter “access to the highest quality healthcare, education, research and advocacy.”

Although the endless debate over government funding is typically the first thing that comes to mind when the average American hears the buzzword “health care,” the racial, socio-economic- and in this case, gender biases inherent within the aforementioned institution are also in desperate need of critical analysis. Oppression, after all, is most triumphant when its side effects are not blatantly obvious, especially in the eyes of those who do not experience the same form of oppression. Injustice maliciously and persistently seeps through the cracks of a “that’s just the way it is” system. When we take a closer look at health care, we see that “the way it is” disproportionately caters to the heterosexual community, largely ignoring or subordinating the needs of the LGBT community.

The purpose of acknowledging the fact that there are health care needs specific to LGBT individuals is not to segregate or deem the latter’s physical or psychological states of being as inherently “different” from cis-gendered, heterosexual individuals. In fact, much of these “specific needs” are simply the result of mere social insensitivity and systems of oppression in American culture and public policy. According to a Fenway Institute publication, “what binds (…) social and gender minorities are common experiences of stigma and discrimination,” coupled with “a long history of discrimination and lack of awareness of health needs by health professionals.” Thus, examining LGBT health care in the U.S. often becomes an analysis of disparities and gaps in our socio-political structure that public organizations like Fenway seek to fill in. According to the same Fenway publication, some of these disparities include, but are not limited to complications with same-sex couples obtaining spousal health insurance (Thanks, but no thanks, DOMA), lack of substance abuse and mental health counseling and treatment (both necessary when one grows up in an intolerant and hateful social structure), and a deficiency in funding for anti-bullying education (as suicide and physical injury rates are particularly high amongst LGBT youth).

Although there are no diseases exclusive to the LGBT community, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has affected the LGBT community disproportionately from other demographics. The research and combative treatment of the disease have been insufficient, presumably due to social stigma and discrimination. The Fenway Institute has been a pioneer in HIV/AIDS research, and was the first health center in New England to “ conduct some of the first studies to define the sexual practices that lead to HIV transmission” and has progressively “develop(ed)…model programs of HIV counseling and testing and prevention education.”

As previously mentioned, health care in the U.S. is largely built upon and orchestrated through hetero-normative principles and practices. The fact that an organization like Fenway Health is a move toward “radical” change in health care policy and protocol is uplifting in the sense that it exists to challenge and implement change to a flawed system. The mere necessity of an organization like Fenway Health is simultaneously disappointing, in the sense that catering to the needs of an entire demographic should never be a “radical” notion, especially in the 21st century. We, as a society, owe homage to the organization’s founders, current board of directors and employees for setting a shining example of a comprehensive health care model for other health facilities and public institutions to model themselves after.

The social morals and innovative research that compose the bedrock of Fenway Health as an organization provide precedent for a future of health care where all U.S. health professionals, scientists, and organizations are equipped with sufficient knowledge and resources (both human and inanimate) to serve the LGBT community with a sensitivity and inclusion that is widely non-existent at this time. Presumably, one can imagine that the board of directors at Fenway Health envisions a time when LGBT health care will be a standard, and not a niche of the U.S health care system at large.

Bostonians have a lot to be proud of, and anyone who has lived here or visited knows that the latter are all but shy in showing it. Fenway Health is just one more reason to boast “Boston Strong.”

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