To celebrate IDAHO(T) 2013, Polari Magazine is publishing stories from its writers about their experiences of homophobia and transphobia. Some tales are funny, some are shocking and some are sad.
Sean-Michael Gettys on the headache that is doctors who do not understand, or accept, the status ‘transgender’.
As a person with chronic health problems, I have dealt with many medical professionals, and I think I am pretty good at treating others with respect while safely advocating for myself even when very ill. However more than once, I have faced discrimination based on my gender or sexuality from people whose Hippocratic oath should have prevented such behavior.
A few years ago, I was severely affected by migraines which would hit me like a jack hammer and last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Sometimes I would start to feel a bit better and finally drift off to sleep only to wake up a few minutes to an hour later with more pain than before. The pain was occurring several times a day, which we now know are called chronic cluster migraines. In the beginning, I was forced to endure multiple horrible interactions with various doctors at ERs, urgent care facilities, and eventually, a neurologist’s office. Along the way, care was delayed as I was treated incorrectly or mislabeled as drug seeking and more. One nurse misunderstood when I explained that I had to be in a closet to avoid light in order to be able to sleep as saying I was a closeted queer. The doctor had diagnosed me as currently having a migraine and ordered the nurse to give me a “migraine cocktail.” Instead the nurse proceeded to scream at me to “come out of the closet because it was causing stress headaches”.
Through all the pain, it was the first specialist I saw that stood out the most. While in a neurologist’s office, I was subjected not only to painful migraine tests but a repetitive mockery and questioning of my sanity due to his lack of understanding about the meaning of the term Transgender. This was the only neurologist who could get me in to see him right away instead of making me wait months for an appointment. Being that I could barely manage to function in a dark room and was in almost constant agony for months on end my family and I were not willing to wait any longer for an appointment. Instead we wanted to see anyone who had space and was willing to see me ASAP.
When I found someone with an opening, I jumped at the chance. Since this was a new doctor who did not know me I was not sure which box to check for gender. While my state I.D. and appearance said male, my insurance still listed me as female. When the form asked “gender, M or F” I put an arrow from F to M and wrote “F to M transgender person”. I know that I look very much like the man I am, and to check F would create problems galore with the front desk while to check M would cause my insurance to deny my claim. So I did the only thing that seemed to clarify both without causing too many problems. Of course the front desk called me up and explained that they would have to put F on my claims or they would not receive payment because I had not finished having certain surgeries yet. They said they would call me up when the doctor was ready. So far everything seemed kosher. Because I had a migraine at the time, I moved over to a corner, tossed a sweat shirt over my head backwards to block out the horrible fluorescent lights and tried to stay as comfortable as possible. When they called me up, I wheeled myself into the exam room, asked the nurse to turn off the lights, and waited for the doctor. he nurse smiled sympathetically while she took my vitals before shutting off the light and letting the doctor know I was ready. I thought so far, so good. What came next was completely unexpected.
The doctor had become aware that I was Transgender. I wasn’t shocked that such information had been passed along but was surprised at the doctor’s behavior. He came into the room asked why the lights were off as he switched them on causing pain to shoot through my head. He then insisted I couldn’t possibly have had a migraine for 3 weeks straight or I’d be dead from lack of sleep. Speaking in a very loud and aggressive tone, he proceeded to question me about my transition rather than my headaches. I answered his questions patiently and used terms like “sir” to address him because I have learned that usually gets you treated better in medical settings. It did not work with this person. He continued to yell and question me as to who told me I had a migraine, and why was I assuming I had one, while questioning my sanity. I talked to him about my various visits to my primary care doctor, urgent care and ER trips, and how every doctor I had seen said it was a migraine but none of the meds they had given me worked. I was totally open to them being wrong if he had another explanation. I just wanted the pain to stop. Once again he questioned my transition and I explained the process I’d been going through. When he asked if I had a letter proving I wasn’t insane, I responded affirmatively. “As a matter of fact I do have such a letter stating I am of sound mind and am a transgender undergoing medical transition.” I shouldn’t have needed to prove my sanity to receive treatment for migraines simply because I happen to be Transgender, but I was desperate for the pain to stop, and willing to jump through any hoops he put before me.
Over time, every appointment with this man started the same way despite my having already provided him with the letter he’d asked for. I would refer him to said letter in his files, and try to get him to focus on the migraines. In an effort to determine the cause of my migraines, he took me off of my prescribed testosterone but when there was no change refused to give me permission to resume my shots. That was the last straw. By this time an appointment had opened up with the personal neurologist my primary physician used and I immediately switched. I am glad to say that the new neurologist treated me well. Although she did not find a medicine to help make the migraines go away completely, I realize she did her best and never once mistreated me due to my perceived gender or sexuality. Eventually we discovered that my migraines are triggered by allergies and intolerances and are best treated with a combination of dietary changes, putting me back on Testosterone, and medications taken just prior to onset of migraine as opposed to after as well as relaxation techniques. I found it most useful to take a full body approach that has everything to do with living a healthy lifestyle.
Since the bad experiences with seeking treatment for my migraine, there have been many occasions that I have had to deal with the experience of encountering new doctors. Each time I take a deep breath and prepare myself for a Transphobic or Homophobic response. Sometimes I avoid treatment for much too long out of fear. Thankfully I have not had to deal with anyone as horribly Transphobic as the aforementioned neurologist for a long time. Most doctors and nurses are professional enough to keep their personal opinions to themselves, and treat me humanely with great compassion. I hope the medical professionals that I am open with about my transition and sexuality take something positive away from the experience and that no one else has to suffer through such poor treatment.