I have heard so many stories from friends about poor experiences in health services as a non heterosexual person ranging from the outright shocking to the wish-the-ground-had-opened-up-but-I-can-laugh-about-it-now. And that's fine if you have the confidence in yourself and in your sexuality to be able to laugh these experiences off, but that won't be the case for everyone, not least if they are lacking a supportive network of family and friends.
Access to good health care is vital and is an important indication of equality in society. Yet the research shows that LGBT people are not achieving this, for example Stonewall in their Prescription for Change study found 50% of lesbian and bisexual women have had bad experiences with healthcare professionals. Of those out in this setting only 30% said that healthcare workers did not make inappropriate comments (2008).
Furthermore 1 in 5 health care professionals admit to being homophobic (HMSO, Equalities Review: Sexual Orientation Research Review, 2007) so is it any wonder that LGBT people are not confident in accessing services.
Health professionals are no different to wider society, they are largely operating from a heterosexist stance; the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. The evidence of this is everywhere, but it is largely invisible until you make a concerted effort to see the world through the eyes of someone LG or B.
Next Valentines go into some card shops and imagine you want to buy a card for someone of a partner the same gender as you and then you'll notice how many of them feature imagery which suggests a heterosexual couple. It's not that you won't find something, its just that your choice will be extremely limited and the one you end up buying probably isn't the one that would have been perfect if it had been gender neutral. Same deal with wedding cards.
Or the Sandals holiday company advert which would have us believe that only straight couples go on romantic holidays together. Or any hotel I've ever checked in to where they've looked at me and my girlfriend and then pointed out we've booked a double and wouldn't we rather a twin? In a busy hotel lobby with a stag do party queuing up behind me to check in I really don't want to have that conversation.
But heterosexism isn't just irritating or awkward it can also be offensive and even dangerous. Mary Hull a domestic abuse development worker for Victim Support tells a memorable account of an injured victim of domestic abuse presenting at A&E where she was asked whether she was safe, where was the man who had done this? did she want to speak to the police etc? The 'man' who had done this was her girlfriend, the woman stood right next to her and therefore hearing this conversation with the receptionist. Completely invisible.
It would be great to hear some stories from other LGB people or their friends and family on their experiences on heterosexism. Feel free to add your own to the blog. Here are some I've been told...
'I had a smear test and the nurse had a trainee with her who must have been briefed to cover sexual health in general. As part of this she offered me condoms which my girlfriend and I have no need for so I politely declined, but she wouldn't let up even though I said I didn't use them. She seemed to take it as a sign of irresponsibility. She asked 3 times and so in the end I made a joke about why I didn't need them. The nurse got a bit defensive and told me that the trainee was only doing her job. I felt like I'd made it awkward'.
'When I went to the GP, he had to ask me some questions including whether I was sexually active. I guessed that what he was really asking was whether I am having sex with men. I ending up having to out myself in order to answer the question. It'd be better if they asked what they meant and didn't think that everyone is either straight or not sexually active'.
'When I went to counselling it was suggested to me that maybe I wasn't a lesbian, just unhappy and had issues'.
'The place I've booked for my wedding, every time I call up they can't seem to say the words. They're very nice, but they refer to it as our booking, or our party. Anything but wedding!'