Hospital staff in Toronto learn the dos and don'ts of LGBTQ lingo

A Toronto hospital is training its employees on how to work with and care for transgender patients as an important step toward "creating safer workplaces and inclusion for everyone."

Michael Garron Hospital holds training sessions to foster an inclusive environment

Transgender man Jack Hixson-Vulpe trains hospital staff in proper titles for members of the LGBTQ community. The workshop at a Toronto hospital aims to foster an inclusive environment for transgender patients. (Kas Roussy)

In the basement at Toronto East General hospital, a lesson in language is underway.

Nurses, occupational therapists, social workers and kitchen staff are in the room. One of the trainers, Jack Hixson-Vulpe, faces them and asks, "Is anyone comfortable giving a definition of the term queer?" Many shake their head no.

Some say they may have Googled the word once.  Hixson-Vulpe continues: "Queer can be understood as an umbrella term for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual."

At a recent LGBTQ sensitivity training course at the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, staff learned to provide a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQ patients. (Kas Roussy)

'Creating safer workplaces'

Hixson-Vulpe is a transgender man with the LGBTQ organization The519. He has been enlisted by the hospital to train health-care workers on how to work with transgender patients.

"I think creating safer workplaces and inclusion for everyone is a really important thing for us to take into consideration," he told CBC News.

The extensive training program at the renamed Michael Garron Hospital is said to be a first for a Canadian hospital.

"We serve an incredibly diverse population and our staff is reflective of that diverse population," says Emily Ambos, who's with human resources and one of the hospital's trainers. "So in order to create an environment that is inclusive for both … it is important for us to learn the different types of languages, to understand the experience of others and to share our own.

The LGBT training at Michael Garron Hospital includes presentations on proper terminology for gender identification, and sexual exploration. (Kas Roussy)

"The fact that we are having this dialogue is so important, because it makes you more mindful," Ambos tells the class.  "It makes you more self-aware." 

That self-awareness is tested when hospital staff members break out in groups and are given various scenarios. They're then asked to come up with solutions. One scenario involves a woman who is startled when a transgender woman enters a public washroom. The consensus on the table is to try to calm both of them down. There's agreement by some that the transgender woman also has a right to use the bathroom.

A member of the LGBTQ community fosters respect and awareness among Canadian healthcare staff 1:56

That tolerance and understanding is not always there.

Transgender people are subjected to intense discrimination, says Hixson-Vulpe. At a recent global summit in Amsterdam, health experts said many transgender people are routinely denied basic health care. Accessing health care is also a challenge.

There are stories of doctors examining a transgender patient's body with no connection to why the patient came to the hospital in the first place. Some transgender patients are referred to by the wrong name, or the wrong pronoun. Boxes on hospital admission forms don't reflect transgender individuals. Access to hormone treatment for transgender people is often delayed or prevented.

"I think it's necessary recognizing that everyone needs to be able to access a hospital safely, and currently for a lot of trans and gender non-conforming individuals, that accessing hospitals is not something that a lot of people feel comfortable doing," Hixson-Vulpe told CBC News.

The training is mandatory for all hospital staff.

'Awesome to start conversation'

Nevertheless, social worker Kailey Rigelhof was excited to attend. 

"I think it's awesome in health care we are starting to have this conversation."  

She says she knows some of her colleagues were reluctant about attending the course, but that they're trying to be open-minded.  

"The fact they're here and they showed up, that's huge," she says.

Nurse Tanya Yako says it was a valuable session.  

"Now I have a better understanding of how to use those terms and how to approach people of different genders or their orientation.

"We need to be talking about this stuff, and especially in a hospital," says Rigelhof.  After all, "it's 2016."

About the Author

Kas Roussy

Senior Reporter

Kas Roussy is a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting has taken her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.