Va. Studies Medical Needs of Transgender

The Associated Press
Monday, May 1, 2006; 3:33 AM

RICHMOND, Va. -- For all the primping, powdering and pumping up many transgender men and women will do to pass as the opposite sex, there's one thing health care experts say too many of them can't stomach: a visit to the doctor.

A health study by the Virginia Health Department and Virginia Commonwealth University is intended to unravel the fears and prejudices hindering transgender people from seeking health care.

The Virginia Transgender Health Initiative Study targets those who feel they were born the wrong biological sex. Some undergo full transitions and have surgery; others take hormone injections to change their appearance.

Though documenting a largely closeted community is difficult, the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates as many as 3 million Americans are transgender.

Some medical experts say doctors are unschooled in how to deal with transgender patients and often are confused on everything from hormone therapy to sex reassignment surgery to the proper personal pronouns _ he or she? Some are simply uncomfortable with a transgender patient, advocates say.

Transgender men and women face the standard medical issues _ high blood pressure, for instance _ which many of them let linger because of fear of an awkward doctor's office visit, explained Zakia McKensey, a transgender woman and outreach specialist at Fan Free Clinic, which includes transgender services and is distributing the survey.

They also have more specific concerns, among them the need for hormonal treatment and counseling surrounding sex reassignment surgery, she said.

In those cases, fear of being made uncomfortable may push some transgender people to risky black market hormones, she said. Still others may be put off by difficulties finding doctors qualified to oversee a complicated hormone regimen, said Ted Heck, a transgender man and one of the study's researchers.

Heck recalled his own difficulties finding a doctor for his transition.

"A friend of mine and I called every endocrinologist we could find in the Richmond area," said Heck, who eventually had to go to Maryland for treatment. "It was pretty frustrating."

The three-year outreach effort, to conclude this summer, is spearheaded by researchers at VCU and the state Health Department's HIV planning group. It is funded by an HIV grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such grants are used to identify and help high HIV risk populations, said Judith Bradford, director of the community health research initiative at VCU.

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