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Universal Access?

Barriers to accessing health care persist for transgender people in Nova Scotia

by Kaley Kennedy

  While hormone treatments are fully covered by provincial health insurance, access is limited because the  endocrinology clinic that administers the hormones is in Halifax. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/linden_tea/">Linden Tea</a> / <a href="http://www.creativecommons.org>">Creative Commons</a>.
While hormone treatments are fully covered by provincial health insurance, access is limited because the endocrinology clinic that administers the hormones is in Halifax. Photo: Linden Tea / Creative Commons.

For Chris,* going to see a doctor can be a frightening experience.

Chris, who lives in Antigonish, first came out as a trans person two and a half years ago. Even though he was assigned female at birth, he identifies as trans and presents as a male. Going for a check-up, getting a prescription, or even trying to fill out a general intake form can turn into a huge production, often without any sympathy from hospital or clinical staff.

“I’m always scared. There’s always an element of fear going to visit a health professional. I can’t help thinking ‘am I going to have a bad experience?’” he says.

For Chris and other transgender people, it is difficult to access health care services that many of us take for granted.

Last year, he had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and the paramedics didn’t know what pronoun to use to refer to him. He was almost forced to go for a psychological evaluation because he was identified as not “gender normative.” More recently, Chris decided against getting jaw surgery because of concerns of how he will be treated.

“There’s no place for a preferred name on forms,” he says. Hospital and clinic staff, he explains, often refer to you by your legal name, and by the pronoun associated with your sex, regardless of your gender presentation.

Dr. Suzanne Zinck, a childhood psychiatrist who is  part of the two-person Transgender Health Team at the IWK Hospital in Halifax, agrees that there continue to be challenges to accessing care for transgender people. But she says she remains optimistic: that with education and training, these can be overcome.

The IWK Transgender Health Team, which includes Zinck and a social worker, was formed four years ago, when the IWK identified a need for more specialized care for transgender youth.  The team is mostly responsible for clinical work related to gender-questioning and transgender youth, but is also involved in educational programming on trans issues, and in consulting with doctors in different disciplines related to specific cases involving transgender or gender-questioning youth.

According to Zinck, the Capital District Health Authority has also been doing advocacy and policy work with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Program (NSRAP) to better serve transgender patients.

“There are many barriers that have come down in the past four years, not only due to our work, but due to all the educational work being done.”

There is still significant room for improvement though, says Zinck.

While hormone treatments are fully covered by provincial health insurance, access is limited because the  endocrinology clinic that administers the hormones is in Halifax. This can make it difficult and costly for patients who have to travel into the city for treatment. The clinic also will only see people who are 18 and over, meaning youth who wish to transition earlier have difficulty accessing hormones.
Other services remain “completely off the radar for most people,” says Zinck. For example, there is no coverage for trans women who need to access voice training. For trans women such training can be essential to their ability to present as female.

The opinion of medical professionals on covering these services “run the gamut,” but for Zinck these are essential services.

“If someone looks gender ambiguous or mismatched in terms of who they present as and what they look like, that can lead to lifelong problems of discrimination, not to mention mental health and self-esteem issues,” says Zinck. She adds that transgender people continue to be underemployed based on their education levels and have lower educational attainment than their non-transgender peers. This, for Zinck, is closely tied to “whether or not a person can pass [for the gender they present as].”

Sex reassignment surgery, which is the largest cost related to transitioning, is also not covered by public health insurance in Nova Scotia. Recently, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia all de-listed the surgery from their list of covered health costs.

In December 2009, Chris traveled to Ontario get chest surgery related to his transitioning. While he received some help from friends, he covered the bulk of the cost out of his own pocket. This experience is not uncommon.

Two years ago, Sandra Bornemann helped start the TransAction Society of Nova Scotia, after organising a fundraiser to raise money for chest surgery of a friend. It was the first fundraiser of its kind in Nova Scotia, and raised about one third of the surgery’s $6300 price-tag.

After that first fundraiser, Bornemann says TransAction re-evaluated its priorities, realizing they could make more of an impact helping with the everyday costs transgender people face for things like chest bindings, gaffs, which help trans women hide their genitals, breast forms, and packers, penis forms sometimes worn by trans men.

The decision not to raise money for surgery was also a political one, says Bornemann.

“We believe surgery should be covered [by provincial health insurance], so we’re not going to give the government an out by paying for that service,” says Bornemann. She says that the members of the society also realize that many transgender people don’t want to have sex reassignment surgery.

Over the past two years, the TransAction society has provided chest bindings and gaffs free of charge to dozens of people in Nova Scotia. They are hoping that through additional fundraising, they will also be able to provide breast forms and packers in the near future.

“It’s little things,” says Bornemann, “but they are expensive.”

For Chris, social and structural changes are necessary if access to health services are going to improve. He says there needs to be more education, better training for health professionals on transgender issues, and more visibly trans-positive spaces to access care.

Until then, small improvements, like better access to hormones and more accessible information forms, could go a long way.

“I’m really frustrated by the lack of people able to administer hormones. It’s possible to get [better access to hormones], but its not happening.”

Bornemann says she hears the same thing from transgender people - that small improvements make a big difference.

“We’ve had so much support. People have come to us and say they are supporting of the fact that we’re filling these everyday needs,” she says.

To contact the TransAction Society for bindings, gaffs, or other needs, email transactionsociety@gmail.com

*Name has been changed.

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Topics: GenderHealth
1067 words


Great story!

Surely these types of stories of social justice need to happen more within independent media.

Love the name of the group since I was the founder of a first attempt at a true Canada wide trans group called Trans Action Canada.



I have also done work with Egale Canada with the many issues LGBT2IQ Canadians were experiencing.

One could simply good my full name to find out:  Tami Starlight

I am now with the Vancouver Media Coop and feel encouraged by this story to have a look into the community here (once again) and come up with a story here.

Thank you!



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