The annual gala appropriately takes place in the month of love.
by Megan Smith
The acronym LHI may stand for Lesbian Health Initiative, but that L stands for so much more—loving, learning, living, listening, and laughing. And at an organization that is dedicated to eliminating barriers to healthcare and promoting health and wellness for LGBT-identified women and transmen, that’s exactly what the group’s dedicated volunteers have been doing for over twenty years and counting.
The only one of its kind in Texas, the initiative was founded in 1992 after a group of Houston lesbians decided it was time to abate and bring awareness to the health risks that plagued their own community, including breast and ovarian cancers, heart disease, and stroke. As the prolific, heavily volunteer-based organization continues to grow and provide more services, the need for more staff and space is becoming more apparent each day. LHI hosts its annual gala and fundraiser this February to celebrate community, LHI’s mission, and raise funds for future health projects.
With an estimated 90,000 to 180,000 uninsured LGBT Houstonians, LHI’s staff and volunteers continue to have their work cut out for them. “Quite frankly, these same issues still exist today,” says Liz James, Chief Executive Officer for LHI and recent female grand marshal nominee for Houston Pride 2013. “The reality is that LGBT people are not counted in any kind of survey with regards to health issues and so we’re invisible. If you think about women, in particular, that invisibility is higher for obvious reasons, but in the LGBT community, because there has been a lot more HIV funding, there’s a little bit more visibility and more physicians that have more cultural competency for serving men who may or may not be HIV positive.”
However, barriers to receiving proper health services are not purely financial, James emphasizes. LGBT-identified people sometimes don’t seek care, or they may even refuse care. This could be due to previous bad experiences, not knowing a doctor they feel safe going to, or the misinformation that LGBT women don’t need certain services, such as pap tests, putting them at higher risk for certain cancers solely because they are not screened. “We had a member of our organization who was a senior VP in a multi-billion-dollar company,” James says. “They had insurance, and even if they didn’t have insurance, they could have paid for it out of pocket, but because of their fear and the barriers that existed, they didn’t get the care.”
LHI is determined to break down these barriers through access, education, and advocacy. Partnered with numerous healthcare groups such as CVS Pharmacy, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, LHI hosts biannual health fairs, which James calls “one-day multi-provider clinics,” to offer a plethora of no cost health services such as mammograms, pap tests, blood tests, and heart and vascular risk assessments to over two hundred LGBT women and transmen each year. At the 2012 health fairs, the initiative served thirty percent more individuals and provided seventy percent more services (an estimated $175,000 value) than the previous year, and aims to continue this pattern in the future. “We’re a gateway to care,” James says. “We map out how somebody makes it from point A to point B. We don’t want to just keep seeing the same people; we want to be able to help people find a more permanent healthcare home, like Legacy.”
With the effects of the Affordable Care Act just around the corner, healthcare within the LGBT community is about to change for the better, James stresses. However, LHI is already planning to step up their education efforts, as details of the act are confusing to the community and the majority of individuals will need help enrolling for coverage, according to a CVS Caremark research study. “The Affordable Care Act and health insurance exchanges, which are prohibited by federal law from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification, are going to be the first LGBT health policies, aside from hospital visitations, that have been granted under the Obama administration that this state has ever had,” James says. “It is the biggest opportunity we have ever had to get our population care. The problem is, there hasn’t been much education about what is coming down the pipeline.”
Even after the enrollment process is finished, worries about finding an LGBT-friendly and culturally competent doctor still exist. This is the main reason, James explains, that LHI is determined to provide clinicians with LGBT sensitivity training to ensure a welcoming and safe healthcare environment. “About a year and a half ago, we expanded our mission to include transgender men,” she says. “We want to make sure our physicians understand the issues that arise, like you might be seeing someone here that needs a pap test, but it’s going to be a really different interactive experience than it would be with someone who was a lesbian-identified person.”
To make all their goals a reality, LHI is hoping for and expecting a great turnout at their gala. The event kicks off around 6 p.m. and is honoring Dr. Maria Fernandez, Associate Director for the Center for Health Promotion & Prevention Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center’s School of Public Health, for her dedicated work with cancer prevention among low-income and minority individuals. “She’s an ally to the community through her work, and we really wanted to say thank you for the work that she’s done with cancer prevention within underserved populations,” James says. “She’s a real innovative woman that’s done amazing work, and we, as an organization, are very pleased to be honoring her.”
The iconic Kate Clinton provides guests with lots of laughs with a show from her current SIS-BOOM-BAH tour. VIP tickets are also available (and going fast!) for an exclusive reception with Clinton. “We’re huge fans, and she gets the work that we do,” James says. “She does a tremendous amount of work for the LGBT community, and we could not be more thrilled to have her.”
The evening also includes a silent auction, dinner, cake, dancing, and a raffle for a four-day Carnival Western Caribbean cruise for two, plus a two-night stay at the Hotel Galvez and Spa in Galveston.
Tickets can be purchased online from lhihouston.org, with all proceeds directly benefitting LHI. James hopes to raise enough funds to expand staff, obtain a larger office space for the organization, and to formalize the group’s education program. “It’s corny,” she says, “but we know that you can save somebody’s life by telling them about us.”
What: LHI 2013 Annual Gala & Fundraiser
When: Saturday, February 23
Where: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Houston Downtown, 400 Dallas Street
Megan Smith is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.