By Belinda O’Donnell
At a time where the push for full inclusion of LGBT people is gaining ground at a remarkable pace, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still not a single country where LGBT people are not threatened and objectified, have their abilities and contributions discounted, and are subjected to violence because of their perceived or actual LGBT status. Because of this reality, it’s not surprising that LGBT people often struggle to access quality healthcare. And yet as UNAIDS deputy executive director Dr. Luiz Loures notes, “Non-discrimination in health care settings is urgent in order to end the AIDS epidemic.”
Belinda O’Donnell spoke with Monica Kriete, a fierce LGBT health advocate, a former facilitator of a discussion group for queer women in their twenties at the DC LGBT Center, and a first-year MPH student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They talked about how to make health-care settings more inclusive for LGBT people, as well as what it’s like to commit to a career in public health at such a charged political moment in the United States.
Belinda O’Donnell: Many in the LGBT community are intimidated by and avoid healthcare settings because they fear they may be hostile environments. How can healthcare workers be more attuned to the needs and concerns of their queer patients, especially queer youth?
Monica Kriete: By finding ways to work as a partner with patients in terms of maintaining their health, and not somebody who is going to be judging them or telling them what to do. It’s not so much about “How do I make my practice queer friendly?” as it is about a bit of a paradigm shift. It can’t all be about the mechanics of the body and the mechanics of drugs. How do you communicate effectively with your patients? How do you make your patients feel safe and empowered? How do you make them feel like you are their partner in maintaining their health?
Why are you getting a degree in public health?
As an undergrad, I majored in biochemistry. I love thinking about science. I love thinking about how cause and effect happens in a chain reaction from some kind of input to some kind of output that is very distant.
“If you made biochemistry and women and gender studies into a Venn diagram, the place where they overlap is public health.”
At the same time that I was progressing through my undergraduate degree, I was reading a lot of blogs about feminism. I had this entry point through reading about weight bias, or weight stigma, which is that fat people are treated very poorly in our society in a pretty systemic way. Understanding a lot about the social construction of that phenomenon brought me deeper into feminism as a whole. Eventually, around senior year, it clicked, and I picked up a minor in Women and Gender Studies. If you made biochemistry and women and gender studies into a Venn diagram, the place where they overlap is public health.
I came to Harvard with the intention of studying communication and the way people talk about health and the values that are implicit there. A lot of that is informed by my understanding and experiences of weight bias. Up until two weeks ago, it was my game plan to make that my career. Since the election, I’m looking at the future much more broadly, as I suspect we all are. Communication and politics are ultimately very related. I’m looking at taking a lot of policy classes.
How have you been responding to the aftermath of this election?
I’m in the social and behavioral sciences department and we talk a lot about the social determinants of health. Social conditions really drive people’s behaviors, including their risk behaviors. Discrimination is bad for your health. Poverty is bad for your health. The new administration is proposing a lot of policies that would increase both of those things. We have to mobilize to stop that from happening. We are talking broadly about ensuring access to care for people who need it, including people who have HIV.
How do we protect public health in this political landscape?
Well, I’m a communications person, so the answer that I’m going to give you is that it’s all about finding a way to frame the message and finding a way to tell the story that is compelling. I suspect that a policy person would tell you something different, and a global health person would tell you something different again.
“It’s about finding ways to communicate effectively and understanding that facts are great, but they don’t change people’s minds.”
I would say that it’s about finding ways to communicate effectively and understanding that facts are great, but they don’t change people’s minds. They are really, really important, but the thing that is more important when you are talking to people is understanding where they are at and meeting them there.
One of the things we have talked about in classes is that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. The way people process information means that individual and small group stories are the most powerful, making it about somebody that is a real person is the most important thing.
Feature image courtesy of Olufemi Leverett
Belinda O’Donnell (Harvard ’11) is a Washington-based writer and researcher with a focus on U.S.-Africa ties.