Content advisory: this post discusses experiences and examples of medical spaces being uncomfortable/unsafe for people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, or another related identity.
I made this a blog post after publishing it on my personal facebook page and several people commented that they had no idea these experiences existed. I realized it should reach a wider audience. I’ve posted it below without editing except to emphasize certain words and I’ve also added some links for further education.
I’m pretty sure you are aware of the pinkified, radically femme and feminized culture of breast health issues, breast cancer, and the typically-broadcast stereotype that only cisgender women experience them.
I’m pretty sure you all are also aware that all genders and body types can have breast medical issues despite the above-mentioned stereotype.
But I think many people aren’t aware of what it can feel like to be in a medical space intentionally geared towards women’s breast care if you are a nonbinary, genderqueer, or transgender (and other identities) person. Or a cisgender man.
I can only speak from my perspective, so I’m sharing this for myself as a genderqueer person. I’m also sharing it on behalf of my trans or otherwise queer friends who have previously shared their stories with me of discomfort and complete alienation in pinkwashed medical spaces.
If this is a new topic for you, I ask in advance for you to listen to people’s stories who have and continue to experience discomfort and fear in these spaces.
I hope this post and comments section will be a safe space for people to share their personal experiences and I ask that you help each other self-moderate the comments. And I ask that we all give support to those of us who have been harmed mentally, emotionally, and even physically by such medical environments.
So, today (June 29, 2018) actually began with an experience from a few days ago when I called to schedule a biopsy for a fat tumor (a lipoma) in my chest. I should be clear that biopsies for lipomas aren’t common, and that I pushed for the biopsy because I’m a high-risk, immunocompromised patient on medications that can cause cancer (I give thanks to chosen sibling, Vonn, who supported and encouraged me to push for the biopsy). I’d rather be absolutely sure of what this mass is, especially because it’s so painful (fyi that many cancerous and noncancerous masses are NOT painful – pain does not equate seriousness).
While on the phone to schedule the appointment, I was transferred to the “Women’s Imaging Center.” I asked the person on the phone if they do imaging for men too. The answer was yes, so I asked why the center was called the Women’s Imaging Center. The person said, “We mostly see women and want it to be a safe space for women and children.”
Ok, I can support that. Women need safe spaces. But what about other gender identities? Especially people who don’t fit the gender binary?
News flash? Women aren’t the only people who get breast cancer.
I felt alienated. I told the person I don’t always identify as a woman and that I was offended. Would I feel safe there? The person couldn’t answer me directly and said I could “talk to someone during [my] appointment.”
So I thought of multiple friends who are trans. They’ve shared stories with me of having to go to visibly, colloquially, or intentionally gendered medical centers for mammograms/breast imaging or gynecological care. They were immediately triggered mentally and emotionally because they didn’t feel safe. And I mean that they feared for their safety.
And I thought of how difficult it is for people who are trans and nonbinary to find centers that make space for all identities, and even when we do it’s rare for insurance to cover our visits.
And I thought of how Planned Parenthood, an organization that serves all genders, is named Planned Parenthood, not Planned Motherhood.
And then I thought, separately, of how alienated I already feel when I receive my infusions for Ankylosing Spondylitis in a branded “Mercy Cancer Center.”
Are there any spaces where I truly belong?
Back to today-today:
When I arrived at the Women’s Imaging Center I was relieved when the outside of the building simply said Mercy Imaging Center. Whew, I thought, now all I have to ask is that they stop saying “Women’s Imaging Center” over the phone.
Then I went inside to Suite 100.
And it felt like a hotel. And not in a good way.
And the space felt…female. There was one *man (gender assumed) in the waiting room.
It was definitely the Women’s Imaging Center.
I was wearing my new queer sloth t-shirt from Jennifer (friend). And jeans. And my buzzed head. Everyone else was very…classically *female (gender identity assumed).
And there was a feeling in the room that I wasn’t part of; that sort of excited whispered undertone of, “We’re all women here and we know who isn’t one of us,” paired with glances at everyone else in the room to make sure everyone fit the mold.
And I wasn’t one of them. The stares felt judgmental. Invasive. And I’m not even a person with low self-esteem! Medical establishments feel more like home to me now than my own living room. This was not a space where I felt safe. Or confident.
I get that safe spaces should exist. I’m happy for the people who found this to be safe, supportive space. But this wasn’t safe space for me.
I wanted to leave. My body was on high alert. I didn’t show it on the outside, but my mind was going into safety mode as a reaction to traumatic situations.
Then I noticed the music, which together with the look of the front desk felt like a hotel. I told my friend Victoria that it felt like a hotel. I joked about needing a room key, room service, and a terry cloth robe. I knew I would soon get everything but the terry cloth robe.
And then, when the music changed I said it felt like I was at a wedding. Or a funeral. The woman next to us shifted uncomfortably. Oops. I spend so much time talking about sickness and death in a healthy way that I forget others can be uncomfortable about it.
The music was supposed to be calming. But I felt like I was waiting for a wedding couple to walk down the aisle carrying a coffin.
When I was called back I was handed a pink gown and told to put it on and sit in the open waiting room. I put my bag in a locker and took the key. And then a flood of *women (gender identity assumed) entered in a trail behind me to put on their own gowns and join me in the locker room.
WTF. Where was my blue gown? Why wasn’t I given a choice? I felt so exposed. And uncomfortable. I do NOT like pink.
I almost asked if someone wanted to trade gowns as I slouched, letting mine hang wherever it landed on my body.
I’ve never been comfortable being in a single-gender space (please laugh now, because I went to a women’s college), and here I was with all these *women side-glancing each other, carefully adjusting their blue smocks to cover more skin, asking nervously if there’s a trick to the locks on the lockers.
Then I had my biopsy done which was an experience in itself. Fascinating. A post for another time.
Then, as I was leaving, I was handed a pink ice pack shaped like a heart.
“Do you have another color?” I asked?
“No, that’s all we have, sorry.”
I know I have friends who are experienced and knowledgeable about creating safe medical spaces for gender identity inclusivity. Please feel free to post links or info to educate or help guide us onward.
Also? I’m a writer. I take the most fascinating parts of my life and turn them into a story that sometimes sounds more interesting than it was while I was experiencing it. This whole experience is based in actual experiences with extremely tiny amounts of exaggeration in certain paragraphs.
And, as a reminder, it is extremely difficult to express inflections while writing, so I want to be clear that all medical professionals referred to in this post were treated with care, curiosity, and respect during all interactions.
Here’s a super long list of definitions if you’re unfamiliar with some of the terminology I used.
Here’s a Cosmopolitan article titled 10 Horrifying Things That Happen When Trans Patients Seek Health Care.
If you found this post useful in some way, please consider supporting my writing with a $3 tip at ko-fi.com/beingcharis. Your support will help me keep the lights on (maybe?) and make me smile.