By: Noah Strike, PPSAT Intern
I grew up going to Catholic schools in Virginia. When sex and sexuality were discussed, the information that was provided centered around abstinence and heterosexual relationships. There was no information about forming healthy relationships, testing and treating STIs, consent, or contraception. At home, my religious family took a similar approach, only talking to me about the procreative side of sex. As a gay man, it felt as though there was no information for me when it came to sex.
While I had been sexually active in high school, it wasn’t until I left home for college that I was able to take care of my sexual health. Early in my freshman year, I made an appointment at my university’s student health center for my first-ever STI test. My experience was terrible; the staff was extremely judgemental when I told them I had unprotected sex with multiple partners and aggressively pathologized the queer community. They used dehumanizing medical phrases and treated my need for health care like a chore rather than a right to which I was entitled. I knew there had to be a better option when it came to getting the health care I needed.
Unfortunately, my negative experience was not unique. A study done by the Center for American Progress in 2017 found that 8% of LGBT respondents had delayed or foregone medical care because of concerns of discrimination in healthcare settings. In addition to high rates of stress due to systematic harassment and discrimination, which has been shown to affect physical and mental health, LGBTQ people face lower rates of health insurance coverage, higher rates of HIV/AIDS and cancer, and higher rates of discrimination from medical providers. And because of the sometimes-lethal intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-transgender bias, LGBTQ people of color are at even greater risk. Not all health care providers have the necessary knowledge or understanding of diverse sexualities and gender identities which has led to many LGBTQ people having a high level of mistrust in the medical system.
When it was time for me to have another STI test done, I decided to make an appointment at my local Planned Parenthood health center. When I arrived at the clinic a few days later, I met the most welcoming health care staff I had ever encountered. They spoke about queer sex and queer health care in a way that affirmed my identity and did not judge me for what I was doing with my body. They respectfully asked questions about my sex life and recommended what forms of care I should receive based on the information I provided.
After getting my STI test, my nurse asked if I knew what PrEP was. I had heard the name from a few gay friends of mine but didn’t really understand what it did, how it worked, and if I needed it. The nurse explained to me that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a once-daily pill that reduces the risk of contracting HIV from unprotected sex by 74% and recommended it to me given my sexual activity. She gave me information on a cost-assistance program that covers the co-pay of the medication. Most importantly, the nurse walked me through how to explain to my parents what PrEP was and why I was on it since I was still covered by their insurance. She thoroughly understood the stigma surrounding queer sex and health care and compassionately helped me figure out what was right for me, without judgment. I will always be thankful for her and my experience.
I’ve lived in an environment where my identity and my sex life were stigmatized and hidden away, and it put me in an unsafe situation. Planned Parenthood gave me education and health care when I needed it the most. They affirmed my identity as a gay man and trusted me to do what’s best for myself and my body. That’s why it’s important for me to fight for access to reproductive health care. All around the country, providers like Planned Parenthood are under attack from politicians seeking to restrict access to health care like the kind I receive. I could never go back, and I know that we can never go back.