North

Don't assume gender or sexuality, study tells northern doctors

A new study has found that northerners deal with inaccurate assumptions about their gender and sexual identity at the doctor's office — and that could be bad for their sexual health care.

LGBTQ youth and adults say they want practitioners who understand their needs and don't judge them

Rainbow flag flies during Pride Week. LGBTQ youth and adults want more medical professionals who are educated on their healthcare needs. (The Canadian Press)

Researchers have found that northerners deal with inaccurate assumptions about their gender and sexual identity at the doctor's office — and that could be bad for their sexual health care.

A new study published in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community based its findings on interviews done in 2015 with 37 LGBTQ youth and adults, and health care and support providers who work with them. 

The study's subjects reported encountering "ubiquitous assumptions" that they were heterosexual and identified with the gender they were born with, making it uncomfortable to share some health issues and sexual practices. 

Study co-author Candice Lys said in some cases, they avoided seeking healthcare altogether. 

"People's experiences, when they're negative, can range from unpleasant to feeling like the health care system isn't serving their needs," said Lys, who is also executive director of FOXY, a sexual health education group in the Northwest Territories. 

Study co-author Candice Lys says there hasn't been much research around how people in the LGBTQ and Two-Spirit community deal with healthcare in Canada's North. (Submitted by Candice Lys)

Most of the respondents lived in Yellowknife, although 10 lived in Fort Smith, and 10 in other parts of the territory.

In the study, LGBTQ youth and adults said they would like to see medical practitioners who are up to date on gender identity and different kinds of sexual practices, so nurses and doctors could be not only non-judgemental, but actually helpful.

People interviewed for the study also felt the N.W.T.'s small number of health clinics, long wait times, and lack of a designated sexual health clinic made it harder to get care. As well, seeking care in small communities came with fears of discrimination and privacy breaches.

The study noted actual breaches were very rare. 

Fear of being judged is actually so powerful it can impact your health.- Carmen Logie, study co-author

Carmen Logie, a co-author, said the findings show "fear of being judged is actually so powerful it can impact your health... It doesn't mean you have to be discriminated against for stigma to impact you."

Some people in the north who were quoted had good experiences, pointing to sensitive and non-judgemental providers.

That's something Josh Murray, who moved to Yellowknife last year, and who uses the pronoun they, describes as well. They were pleasantly surprised to learn the territory would fund their gender-affirming surgery. Murray also found a supportive doctor quickly after speaking with the Rainbow Coalition, an outreach organization for LGBTQ youth in the Northwest Territories. 

Murray is grateful to know where to go to get answers, but says, "It would be cool if more doctors were open to learning."

N.W.T. Pride community at the 2015 Pride festival in Yellowknife. The LGBTQ community wants more sensitive, more informed health care providers. (James MacKenzie)

For Michael Bokor, a chiropractor at the Gaia clinic in Yellowknife, the study was a reminder to look more closely at how his clinic operates. The clinic recently updated its forms to be more gender inclusive. 

Bokor says as a gay man educated in the healthcare field, it's easier for him to advocate for himself "in a system that doesn't always make it easy." 

CBC asked the Northwest Territories Health Authority for an interview, but no one was made available by deadline.

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