Howard Brown Health Denounces Removal of HHS Data Regarding Lesbians and Bisexual Women

Howard Brown Health denounces the removal of data regarding lesbians and bisexual women from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) website. We recognize that this is part of a long history of erasure among sexual minority women. This invisibility prompted the development Lesbian Community Cancer Project (LCCP) which evolved to become Howard Brown’s Women’s Health Services department. When Nancy Lanoue founded the LCCP in the early 1990s, she and other women working in public health saw a need to address disparities in cancer outcomes among lesbian, bisexual and queer women. Lesbian and bisexual women experience disproportionately high rates of cervical and breast cancer, smoking, and obesity. At the same time, sexual minority women are less likely to be enrolled in health insurance and are more likely to avoid healthcare than their heterosexual counterparts[1]. For older lesbian and bisexual women, a lifetime of experiencing invisibility, stigma, and discrimination often leads to increased financial barriers to accessing healthcare and decreased medical coverage. Lesbian and bisexual women over the age of 50 experience higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and disability than their heterosexual peers.[2] Reduced access to care and increased rates of illness and disability lead to very real and damaging health consequences in our community.

Queer women’s stories about being unseen in medical settings are far too common. Most are presumed to be heterosexual unless they come out to their doctors, resulting in missed health screenings and miscalculated health risks. When women do share information about their identities with healthcare providers, they far too often receive inaccurate health information. For example, lesbian, bisexual, and other women who have sex with women sometimes believe, or are told by providers, that they do not need to be screened for cervical cancer due to a mistaken belief that lesbians are not at risk for contracting human papillomavirus infection (HPV). However, HPV, which can cause precancerous lesions that increase women’s risk of cervical cancer, is transmissible via skin-to skin genital contact, as well as potentially through oral-vaginal and digital-vaginal contact. Therefore, even women who exclusively have sex with women are at risk for HPV and cervical cancer. HPV has been detected in the genital tract of between 13% and 30% of women who have only had sex with women, similar to rates in the general population.[i]

The removal of data from the HHS website highlights that the mission articulated by LCCP thirty years ago remains as important as ever. This vision of culturally competent care for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women lives on at all nine of our clinic locations where we are dedicated to providing the best possible experience for our community. At Howard Brown, our staff is trained to ask about patients’ sexual behavior and relationships in an affirming way that values each individual’s unique experience: This practice needs to be the standard, not the exception for LBQ healthcare.

Howard Brown Health is working toward improving and expanding services for all women. As part of our three-year strategic plan, we recently concluded a community needs assessment for women living in and around Chicago. Through a survey tool, individual interviews, and community dialogues, we gathered feedback that will help shape future women’s health programming. Out of 885 survey respondents, 26% identified as lesbians and 24% as bisexual women. In spite of the recent removal of data regarding lesbian and bisexual women, Howard Brown will continue to analyze and share data regarding them and make improvements in our service offerings for lesbians and bisexual women at all of our clinics. Howard Brown Health believes that healthcare for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women is a human right. We are committed to challenging any efforts aimed at rendering LBQ women invisible.

[1] Peitzmeier, M Sarah. Policy Focus: Promoting Cervical Cancer Screening Among Lesbians and Bisexual Women. Fenway Health Policy Report (2013).

[2] Choi, Soon Kyu, and Iian H Meyer. “LGBT Aging: A Review of Research Finding, Needs, and Policy Implications.” Aug. 2016.

[i] This research noted in this article pertains specifically to cisgender lesbians and bisexual women; not enough research has yet been conducted on the disparities faced by sexual minority women who are also transgender.


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