House of Lords holds historic debate on lesbian, bisexual and trans women's health
Publish Date: 04/12/2014
Staff from The Lesbian and Gay Foundation were thrilled to join partners from Stonewall and from DIVA magazine at the House of Lords last night to witness the first ever debate in the UK’s upper chamber exclusively on lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s issues. The short debate was sparked by a question from Baroness Barker of Anagach, asking Her Majesty’s Government what the National Health Service is doing to improve the health of lesbian, bisexual and trans women.
Baroness Barker is the only out lesbian in the House of Lords, and she opened the debate by referencing the famous occasion in 1988 when a group of lesbian activists abseiled from the public gallery to protest the passing of the homophobic Section 28. She noted that Section 28 is thankfully now history and that this was also an historic occasion as it was the first time that a debate had been held exclusively talking about lesbian, bisexual and trans women. She drew laughter when she said that she was not turning her back on our gay brothers but was instead exhorting them today to ‘not rain on our parade’!
Barker went on to point out that the NHS Constitution promises a comprehensive service, available to all, irrespective of issues such as sexual orientation and gender reassignment, but that there is a growing body of evidence that says that this is not happening. After explaining that she would mainly be talking about the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women and that Baroness Gould would highlight issues faced by trans women, Baroness Barker referenced research such as The LGF’s Beyond Babies & Breast Cancer report, Stonewall’s Prescription for Change and Bi UK’s The Bisexuality Report which all report that lesbian and bisexual women sometimes end up getting a very poor service.
Baroness Barker highlighted that many lesbian and bisexual women report poor service and being asked inappropriate questions by doctors and nurses. She also highlighted that, although many lesbian and bisexual women live happy, healthy lives, statistically they are more likely to drink too much, to smoke and to suffer from mental ill health. She said that the biggest difference would be made if clinicians and front-line staff recognised and understood that some women are lesbian or bisexual and stopped asking questions which presumed they are not.
Barker finished her speech by saying that there were many more things that could be done and explaining that she was not asking for special services but instead asking that the universal service met all of our needs. She then asked four specific questions of the Minister (Earl Howe, who is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Quality at the Department of Health): when Public Health England would put forward a strategy for promoting the health and wellbeing for lesbian and bisexual women, like the one they have already developed for the health and wellbeing of gay and bisexual men; when NHS England would develop a data standard on sexual orientation monitoring; whether work could be done with the Royal College of GPs to develop standards for questions to be asked in a non-discriminatory way; and how the health outcomes of lesbian, bisexual and trans women could be part of the overall monitoring of GP practice?
Baroness Barker’s speech was followed by a speech by Lord Cashman, who further highlighted the inequalities faced by lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. He spoke of the two thirds of respondents to Stonewall’s Health Equality Index who did not think their healthcare providers were gay friendly and the 50% or respondents who did not think they were treated with dignity and respect all the time. He also highlighted the plight of older lesbian, bisexual and trans women who faced fear and uncertainty when accessing social care and spoke eloquently of the needs of trans people, saying that it was shocking that the World Health Organisation still classifies trans as a pathological disorder.
Baroness Gould then took to her feet to speak on the healthcare experiences of trans women. She highlighted the delays and setbacks faced by those trying to transition gender and the persistent discrimination often faced by trans women for years after they have transitioned, including being misgendered or ‘outed’ by healthcare staff and difficulties around the prescribing of hormone treatments which can leave trans people tied to a GP who is willing to prescribe.
The debate was rounded off by a response by Earl Howe, Parliamentary Undersecretary for Quality at the Department of Health. He highlighted the work that the Department of Health is doing to tackle this, including work with The LGF, the LGBT Consortium and Stonewall, and specific work with the Royal College of Nursing on preventing self-harm and suicide amongst LGBT youth. However, he then admitted that discrimination against lesbian, bisexual and transgender women did still occur in the NHS, despite the legal framework to prohibit discrimination now being in place, and said that more needed to be done to change hearts and minds to eradicate prejudice.
Following the debate, The Lesbian and Gay Foundation will be working with partners to continue to highlight the healthcare issues faced by lesbian, bisexual and transgender women (as well as by gay, bisexual and transgender men) to decision makers in government and in the NHS. As Baroness Barker said:
“We are citizens of this country. We are taxpayers. We support the National Health Service. It is only fair that we should expect it to recognise that we exist and should be able to access those services with dignity like everybody else.”