With a narrow victory, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act (HR 5), a resolution that ensures legal protections from discrimination in public spaces based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a forward step in the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) rights — one that recognizes the long history of discrimination faced by these groups, especially that of transgender people.
Merely five years ago, our own state of North Carolina was under scrutiny for passing a transphobic law, colloquially known as the “bathroom bill.” Also known as HB 2, this legislation effectively required that transgender people use the restroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificate. This faced major backlash, given its outright discrimination and denial of transgender rights and safety. Although it was partially repealed in 2017, N.C. legislators failed to create any substantial protections for transgender people from discrimination in public areas.
Policies like these have consequential impacts on the health of transgender people. As a third-year medical student, I am passionate about advocating for transgender rights, especially in health and health care access. I plan to make taking care of transgender patients an integral part of my future practice. As such, I am outraged and disheartened by the countless horror stories transgender patients have shared with me about their negative experiences in society and in health care in particular. In fact, 33% of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported negative encounters when seeking health care because of their identity. Nearly a quarter were too afraid to even seek care in the first place due to fear of discrimination and mistreatment. It is easy to see how these fears exacerbate the harrowing health statistics that burden the transgender community, including higher rates of smoking, substance abuse, mental illness and suicide attempts than the general population.
I am in a unique position as a leader in Safe Zone in Medicine, an organization run by health care trainees whose goal is to educate health professionals about the needs and disparities in LGBTQ+ health care. This role prepares me to become a trustworthy doctor and advocate for the transgender community — a population which the medical field has harmed greatly in the past. It also allows me to train other health care professionals who aim to improve their practice to be more welcoming and gender-affirming.
While it is important to educate health care professionals how to best care for transgender patients, we all need to carry out changes to make our communities more inclusive — and non-transgender (aka cisgender) people have an essential role in achieving this. Here is a small thing you can do: The next time you fill in a form that contains demographic data, check if it asks for your pronouns or provides multiple options for indicating gender identity and sex assigned at birth. If it doesn’t, speak up. Regardless of gender identity, one can recognize how frustrating it is to be discriminated against — to be denied the ability to be who you are. Our advocacy should not be limited to just intake forms — we can and should strive to reduce all discriminatory practices in our communities and other public spheres.
Advancing toward change should not be limited to changing our community — our laws have to change, too. Now more than ever, we must come together to demand progress for transgender rights.
Soon, the Equality Act will be in the hands of the Senate, where the bill is in danger of being struck down if it cannot gain the 10 Republican votes it needs to become law. We can do our part by contacting our own Republican senators to express our support for the bill and our desire to see it passed. Let’s work hard to demand the equality that our transgender neighbors so rightfully deserve.
Kychelle Del Rosario is a third-year medical student at Wake Forest School of Medicine and a 2020-21 North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellow. These are her personal opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of Wake Forest School of Medicine.