LGBTQ+ health advocate Dr. Alex Barrera, 30, leads a double life as a dentist and a yogi. If you meet him at Legacy Community Health, he is likely asking you to “open wide” so he can take a look at your chompers. And if you encounter him at Black Swan Yoga, he’s probably asking you to “open wide” for a bigger breath or a longer stretch. In either place, he is there to help you achieve a better, healthier you.
“My goal as an LGBTQ+ health advocate is to empower queer people to live healthier lives. I want to make it easier for LGBTQ+ people to access primary care like regular visits with a doctor or dentist,” says Barrera.
Originally from Laredo, Barrera came to Houston in 2013 to attend dental school at the University of Texas School of Dentistry. He ended up falling in love with the Bayou City for its diversity and opportunities, and he’s been here ever since.
“I’m a general dentist at Legacy Community Health. I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something in the medical field,” he recalls. “I went to college at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo, and that was where I realized that there was a huge need for dental and oral health care around the country, especially among Hispanic communities along the US-Mexico border.”
While he was in dental school, Barrera started to learn more about the health disparities faced by marginalized communities and made a promise to himself to dedicate his career to helping those who are underserved. Aside from working for a Federally Qualified Health Center at Legacy, he also furthers that career goal as president of the Houston Equality Dental Network, a nonprofit organization started in 2019 to address the lack of LGBTQ representation in dentistry. The group creates a presence in both the medical and queer communities by hosting social events, educating dental professionals, posting online resources, and providing oral-health tools for the local LGBTQ community.
“My role as president is to lead the organization by establishing our goals and vision each year,” Barrera notes. “Our vision is to end LGBTQ+ discrimination in dentistry through awareness, education, and action. We hope to do this by increasing access to oral health care, increasing representation in the profession of dentistry, and ensuring that we teach dentists and students how to be better allies to the queer community.”
According to Barrera, LGBTQ patients tend to have a history of discrimination or fear when it comes to seeking out health care, and since dental care is such an intimate experience, many queer patients tend to delay oral health care until it’s too late. This leads to higher incidences of pain, dental emergencies, and financial struggles.
“Queer people—specifically those of lower socioeconomic status—have higher incidences of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, and are much more likely to experience mental-health issues such as depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. All of this leads to higher incidences of oral-health problems,” says Barrera.
The other role that this LGBTQ health advocate has is as a yoga teacher. He initially turned to yoga as a form of self-care, and eventually decided to expand his practice and become a yoga instructor.
“I first started doing yoga during a difficult period in my life when I struggled with a lot of anxiety,” Barrera admits. “I wanted to start yoga as a way to decompress and be still by focusing on my breath and tuning into my body. Little by little, I started to find yoga to be something challenging, rewarding, and beneficial to both my physical and mental health.”
After four years as a student of yoga, he decided to enroll in the yoga teacher training program at Black Swan Yoga, where he fell in love with yoga and realized how transformative and powerful it could be. He has been teaching there for over a year now.
“My favorite thing about yoga is helping people discover their intuition and give them space to sit with their thoughts and emotions. We all live busy lives, and it’s hard sometimes to remind ourselves to pause, breathe, and listen to our needs,” he says.
Barrera’s love for helping people, and especially the LGBTQ community, extends itself to both practices. “Being queer plays a huge role in both my dental and yoga practices. Dentistry has a tradition of being a very conservative profession, especially in Texas, so I struggled at first trying to balance my identity with my profession. Patients want a healthcare provider that sees and understands them. By being out about my sexuality, I’m able to help other LGBTQ+ patients feel safe and accepted while also showing the world that I am proud of who I am.”
“Growing up, I always felt uncomfortable in my own body. I was taught that what my body, in its natural state, wasn’t seen as good or acceptable. Being gay added a whole new layer of [self-esteem issues]. Yoga taught me to embrace the parts of myself that I spent so much time trying to hide.”
There is still work to do in achieving equity for LGBTQ patients and potential yogis, since this community is still underserved by healthcare professionals. Many queer individuals might find it difficult to access affirming health care based on their location, finances, or fear of discrimination. Queer people face different health burdens that require specific responses. Barrera’s goal as an LGBTQ health advocate is to empower queer people to live healthier lives.“
Being queer plays a huge role in both my dental and yoga practices. By being out about my sexuality, I’m able to help other LGBTQ+ patients feel safe and accepted while also showing the world that I am proud of who I am.” —Dr. Alex Barrera
As we enter 2023, Barrera has some thoughts for people to consider as they contemplate the next 12 months.
His first piece of advice: ditch the resolutions. “Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, make a set of New Year’s intentions. Instead of pressuring yourself to meet unrealistic goals, focus on how you want to feel in this new year. My intention for all my yoga students is that they promise themselves that they will never stay in a room, relationship, job, or conversation that requires them to abandon their true selves.”
Barrera also recommends reconsidering your approach to self-care. “Self-care shouldn’t be something that you resort to because you’re so stressed or exhausted that you have no other choice. Self-care should be something we incorporate into our everyday lives. In regards to physical health, that means finding joy out of what your body can do. Whether it’s going for a walk, taking a group fitness class, or practicing yoga from home, finding a sustainable way to move your body will help you feel your best going into this new year.”
Barrera can be found in his white coat at Legacy Community Health if you need dental care. And those looking for a more relaxed (but probably sweatier) environment can find him teaching yoga classes on Saturday mornings at 10:15 a.m. at CrossFit Live Oak, and on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at the Black Swan Yoga location on Kirby Drive.
Follow Dr. Barrera on Instagram @thedowndogdentist.
This article appears in the January 2023 edition of OutSmart magazine.