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‘A Renewed Call to Action’

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As Lesbian Health Initiative marks 25 years, founders fear impact of Obamacare repeal.

By Marene Gustin

The year was 1992, and when it came to healthcare in the LGBTQ community, all the headlines and research funds were devoted to HIV and AIDS.

But some members of Lesbians in Business were meeting regularly at the Montrose bookstore Inklings, owned by activists Annise Parker and Pokey Anderson. As that core group talked about issues facing the community, one that stood out was the lack of access to healthcare for lesbians, particularly those battling breast cancer.

“It was just a radical idea, helping lesbians access healthcare,” says Aurora Harris, who would become Lesbian Health Initiative’s second full-time staff member and second director. Although Harris left LHI earlier this year after the organization partnered with the Montrose Center—a move that allows it to provide more services to the community—she still serves as a volunteer.

This month, LHI will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a fundraiser hosted by the Executive and Professional Association of Houston.

Naushaba Patel, LHI’s current director, says the fundraiser will include over 100 prominent community members, and has already raised more than $10,000—with more pledges to come. “I’m so excited,” Patel says. “It’s going to be a celebration of LHI’s 25 years of serving the health needs of the most vulnerable in Houston’s LGBT community.”

From the early lesbian health fairs LHI hosted to the landmark study it co-sponsored with the Montrose Center, Healthcare Needs Assessment for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Women,” the organization has been a mainstay in promoting research and access to healthcare for Houston’s LGBTQ community. “I had never heard of anything like it,” Harris says. “It was very exciting to be involved in it.”

Harris worked under and eventually succeeded Liz James, the organization’s first full-time staff member. “I could not have accomplished what I did without the help of Aurora [Harris] and Ann Pinchak, who was president of the board at that time,” James says. “Nothing in my life was like being a part of LHI.”

James had a longtime career in high-tech business development before deciding to make a life change and join the nonprofit world. She took some classes at Rice University while volunteering at various small nonprofits in Houston. “I started volunteering with LHI in 2010, doing their books for them,” she explains.

“I was a lesbian, and I was without insurance, so I could relate,” she says, adding that she was also a cancer survivor.

Back then, LHI was an all-volunteer nonprofit. “One day I quipped to Ann [Pinchak], ‘Have you ever thought of hiring an executive director?’” The next thing James knew, she became the first full-time employee at LHI in 2011, with the title of CEO. She stepped down in December 2015 after bringing on Harris and greatly expanding the organization’s reach.

“The reality is, LGBT folks are disenfranchised from healthcare, and there is an enormous need for organizations like LHI in ‘the alphabet community,’” James says.

Indeed, LHI’s own research shows there are 100,000 self-identified LGBTQ individuals and their families with no health insurance in greater Houston. Lesbians and transgender men are at an increased risk for heart disease and cancers including breast, cervical, lung, and colorectal. And even those with insurance face a medical community that sometimes lacks basic knowledge about their needs.

Medical students receive an average of only five hours of training on LGBTQ health issues. Among the services LHI provides is education for healthcare professionals. The organization also provides direct access to healthcare and engages in advocacy.

“When I started with LHI, you could Google ‘lesbian health funding,’ and there was very little,” James says. “That’s better now, but I could not have accomplished what I did without the Affordable Care Act. Most people think it subsidizes health insurance and protects pre-existing conditions, but it also set a nondiscrimination policy.”

Unfortunately, Republicans have been trying to repeal the ACA (often referred to as Obamacare) for seven years. Despite failed attempts this year in Congress to repeal and replace the act, president Donald Trump is now calling for a straight-up repeal with no replacement. “I think this is a renewed call to action,” James says. “We are even more vulnerable now.”

Harris is even more adamant. “This administration is very anti-LGBT,” she says. “Repeal would be devastating.”•

What: Shout Out Loud for LHI, hosted by Executive and Professional Association of Houston (EPAH).
When: September 16, 7 to 11 p.m.
Where: Bradshaw-Carter, 1734 W. Alabama
Tickets: montrosecenter.givezooks.com

This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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