Transgender people in rural America struggle to find doctors willing or able to provide care
Published in News & Features
For Tammy Rainey, finding a health care provider who knows about gender-affirming care has been a challenge in the rural northern Mississippi town where she lives.
As a transgender woman, Rainey needs the hormone estrogen, which allows her to physically transition by developing more feminine features. But when she asked her doctor for an estrogen prescription, he said he couldn’t provide that type of care.
“He’s generally a good guy and doesn’t act prejudiced. He gets my name and pronouns right,” said Rainey. “But when I asked him about hormones, he said, ‘I just don’t feel like I know enough about that. I don’t want to get involved in that.’”
So Rainey drives around 170 miles round trip every six months to get a supply of estrogen from a clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, to take home with her.
The obstacles Rainey overcomes to access care illustrate a type of medical inequity that transgender people who live in the rural U.S. often face: a general lack of education about trans-related care among small-town health professionals who might also be reluctant to learn.
“Medical communities across the country are seeing clearly that there is a knowledge gap in the provision of gender-affirming care,” said Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, a pediatrician who co-leads the Youth Multidisciplinary Gender Team at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Accurately counting the number of transgender people in rural America is hindered by a lack of U.S. census data and uniform state data. However, the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ issues, used 2014-17 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from selected ZIP codes in 35 states to estimate that roughly 1 in 6 transgender adults in the U.S. live in a rural area. When that report was released in 2019, there were an estimated 1.4 million transgender people 13 and older nationwide. That number is now at least 1.6 million, according to the Williams Institute, a nonprofit think tank at the UCLA School of Law.
One in 3 trans people in rural areas experienced discrimination by a health care provider in the year leading up to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report, according to an analysis by MAP. Additionally, a third of all trans individuals report having to teach their doctor about their health care needs to receive appropriate care, and 62% worry about being negatively judged by a health care provider because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to data collected by the Williams Institute and other organizations.
A lack of local rural providers knowledgeable in trans care can mean long drives to gender-affirming clinics in metropolitan areas. Rural trans people are three times as likely as all transgender adults to travel 25 to 49 miles for routine care.
In Colorado, for example, many trans people outside Denver struggle to find proper care. Those who do have a trans-inclusive provider are more likely to receive wellness exams, less likely to delay care due to discrimination, and less likely to attempt suicide, according to results from the Colorado Transgender Health Survey published in 2018.
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