Our health system is failing miserably to address LGBT health disparities and needs across the United States. The limited data that does exist has proven valuable in identifying the most troublesome health disparities. A new study of this data by the Center for American Progress found some staggering trends in the rates at which LGBT populations experience mental and physical health problems:
- LGB adults are twice as likely to experience psychological distress as their straight counterparts.
- LGB adults are more than twice as likely to need medication to treat emotional health issues.
- Transgender adults are 25 times more likely to have suicidal ideations than heterosexuals and 10 times more likely than lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults—who already suffer from elevated risk levels.
- Only one-third of African-American lesbians have received a mammogram in the past two years¾the lowest screening rate of all demographic groups.
- LGB youth are three-and-a-half times more likely to attempt suicide, and many health experts would argue that the rate for transgender youth is probably much higher¾as it is for their adult counterparts.
- LGBT youth are nearly four times as likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon in school than their heterosexual peers.
- LGBT youths are three times more likely to be in physical fights that require medical treatment.
CAP found that the negative health outcomes that uniquely and disproportionately affect LGBT people are due to the cumulative and intersecting impact of three different factors, all of which played a role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged the LGBT community during the 1980s and 1990s: low rates of health insurance coverage, a lack of cultural competency in the health care system, and high rates of stress due to systematic harassment and discrimination. People who are both LGBT and members of a racial or ethnic minority will often face the highest level of health disparities.
The full extent of LGBT disparities is extremely difficult to estimate due to a consistent lack of data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity. No federal health survey includes a question on sexual orientation or gender identity, and only a few states ask respondents their sexual orientation or gender identity, severely limiting researchers’ ability to fully understand the LGBT population’s needs and hindering the development of public policies and programs that seek to improve the LGBT population’s health and well-being.
To overcome this lack of data and make it easier for researchers and advocates to get a full and accurate accounting of LGBT health outcomes and needs—and ultimately to close the gap between the health and well-being of LGBT people and the heterosexual population—the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should establish a dedicated Office of LGBT Health. This office would take the lead in coordinating a consistent and scientifically driven response across HHS to LGBT health issues. A top priority of this office should be to ensure that any federally funded health study that collects demographic information—be it age, sex, race, ethnicity, primary language, or socioeconomic status—must also include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
These memos will outline the health disparities LGBT populations face, look at why these disparities occur, and examine why we need better data on these populations and what we can do to solve this problem.