Photo courtesy Equality Michigan
Photo courtesy Equality Michigan

In a conversation hosted by Equality Michigan, advocates and doctors talked to The ‘Gander about how hard the pandemic is hitting transgender Michiganders. The short answer? Nobody knows. 

MICHIGAN — Thursday, LGBT rights advocacy group Equality Michigan held a Live @ Lunch Zoom meeting with a few experts, community members and The ‘Gander discussing matters of healthcare, specifically as they affect transgender Michiganders. 

The panel consisted of Equality Michigan’s Field Manager Brooke Lindley, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project Jay Kaplan and Associate Dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs at Western Michigan University Dr. Cheryl Dickson.

The conversation covered a wide range of health access considerations for transgender Michiganders, but one health concern was a cloud over the Live @ Lunch Facebook event. The meeting, held on Zoom, was the kind of conversation people have to have in the era of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

But the obvious question raised by that reality was one apparently no one has asked.

How bad is coronavirus for transgender Michiganders? The simple and uncomfortable answer is, we just don’t know.

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Responding to a question from The ‘Gander, the experts expressed grave concern at the inability to answer that question. 

“I know that one of the things when COVID was first coming out across the states is they weren’t really reporting race,” said Dickson. “That data hadn’t actually been taken or being reported early on.”

Now, of course, it’s a known and troubling fact that for reasons ranging from medical bias to environmental racism, black communities are facing far worse outcomes from the coronavirus. Michigan’s Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist is helming a task force to address those disparities. Dickson described the pandemic as holding a mirror to the systemic inequities that make the black community more vulnerable.

Dickson noted the transgender community is in the same place today as the black community was in the early days of the pandemic — lacking data.

“I like your question because I’m not sure I can answer your question,” she admitted. “[Transgender people] are in that pool of experiencing health inequities and healthcare inequities, but I don’t know. I don’t know … I don’t think I’ve read anything about those statistics. I don’t even know if that’s being collected.” 

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Kaplan was also unsure if anyone had bothered to collect data on that question, but thinks Dickson’s comparison to the black community was apt.

“Just the healthcare disparities and the different pre-existing healthcare conditions … make them likely more susceptible to complications if they get this virus,” Kaplan said. 

Medical bias, like The ‘Gander reported, is a major concern in the black community, is a minefield for transgender Michiganders. One topic the meeting discussed was how hard it is for transgender people to seek medical care, as most current doctors lack training on transgender healthcare as the Guardian has noted.

That same bias runs deep against the transgender community as well, Reouters notes.

Western Michigan University’s medical school is addressing this with future doctors, under Dickson’s guidance, but all too often the panel agreed the conversation about transgender healthcare in the state is just sending trans people to the University of Michigan Medical Center. 

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And President Trump is actually looking to expand that bias. COURIER reports that the Trump Administration is finalizing plans to roll back protections designed to ensure health access to LGBT Americans during this time of pandemic. Given the existing challenges faced in specific by transgender Michiganders, this poses an extrreme risk.

The rule would allow anyone percieved as transgender or gay to be denied care by providers without any reprocussions, essentially allowing this critically underserved community which we don’t have statistics on their fatality rate for coronavirus but expect to be high-risk essential healthcare. 

This is compounded by social bias against transgender people. The Washington Post reports that transgender Americans have been turned away by doctors with dire consequences even before the pandemic, and medical discrimination against trans Americans is so bad that in a piece for Slate, a transgender person wrote they would actively hide any information about their medical needs as a trans person from doctors treating them for coronavirus. 

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“We should be asking these questions,” Lindley concluded the Live @ Lunch by saying. “Whether you are a doctor or just in general an advocate for LGBT and specifically transgender folks; advocate, ask questions. Why is these [data] not being collected?”

Lindley and Dickson also raised issues of intersectionality. Specifically that a combination of being transgender, identifying as a woman and being a person of color seems to be a particularly high combination of factors when it comes to being the victim of violence, and based on what we know about medical bias likely not being taken seriously by the medical system.

“The call to action is we do need to ask questions, we do need to figure out a way,” she said. “This might be a conversation that many people didn’t even know of.”