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English & Women's studies project promotes LGBTQ+ friendly medical service providers

| Alison Wagener

If you have a child who doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+, the question of where to take them for medical services is likely determined by your insurance coverage.

But for LGBTQ+ youth and their families, this choice relies on an incredibly important yet often unknowable variable: whether or not the service provider creates an accepting and safe environment for LGBTQ+ individuals.

As the director of Q2, one of the only support groups for LGBTQ+ teens in Eau Claire, Alison Harder is often the only point of contact for concerned parents seeking affirming medical services for their LGBTQ+ children, especially those who are transgender.

“Throughout the years, she’s received calls pertaining to these issues but couldn’t give concrete, local resources to these concerned parents,” said Alex DeLakis, a UW-Eau Claire senior from Eau Claire. “These instances spoke to and sparked the necessity for a resource guide that people could look to in order to find LGBTQ+ affirming and competent service providers within the Chippewa Valley.”

Alex is helping make Eau Claire a safer place for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking medical care alongside fellow Blugolds Dr. Theresa Kemp, professor of women’s studies and English, and alumna Alison Harder, prevention specialist at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin Eau Claire and director of Q2.

Together, the trio is conducting research that will allow them to develop a directory of health care providers in the Chippewa Valley including doctors, mental health therapists, social workers and case workers who facilitate safe spaces for those who identify as LGBTQ+. The goal, Alex said, is to enable LGBTQ+ people to obtain public health services without having to worry about receiving biased or discriminatory treatment, therefore lessening the health disparity gap between LGBTQ+ and cisgender heterosexual people. The researchers hope to distribute the guide throughout the Chippewa Valley.

Their research is funded by a Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant from UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Alex, a social work major, said that while similar guides exist in larger cities including Madison, Minneapolis and Chicago, those guides are intended to advertise featured providers, not to provide genuine outreach for the LGBTQ+ community.

“That is, people pay to put their name into these guides, and there isn’t much transparency on how these people and businesses are labeled as ‘LGBTQ+ friendly,’” Alex said. “We used these existing guides as a launching point for our project, but we scrapped the advertisement-focused portion for a more organic guide.”

Surveying service providers, sparking conversation

To adequately serve the LGBTQ+ community in the area, the Blugold trio will conduct research on area health service providers. They will send out brief surveys that will measure three facets of LGBTQ+ friendliness: how affirming the service environments are for LGBTQ+ recipients; how knowledgeable about and affirming of LGBTQ+ individuals the service providers themselves are; and how interested the service providers are in becoming more competent. Those respondents believed to have adequate levels of affirmation and competency based on their survey responses will be contacted for follow-up interviews.

Currently, the researchers are waiting for approval of their surveys by the Institutional Review Board.

Alex said that an added benefit of conducting their research through these surveys is simply introducing service providers to LGBTQ+ issues they may have not previously considered. Upon completing the survey, many may realize they aren’t adequately serving their LGBTQ+ patients and clients, which Alex said he hopes will spark productive discussions.

“For example, one of our questions asks service providers if their non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity,” Alex said. “This question could spark an interest in knowing the differences between gender expression and gender identity and/or having that provider advocate to get these statuses included in their place of employment’s non-discrimination policy.”

Despite his status as an undergraduate student, Alex said he feels valued as an equal contributor in his research with Kemp and Harder.

“The opportunity and privilege to do research in collaboration with Dr. Kemp and Alison as an undergraduate is phenomenal,” Alex said. “Though we’ve only been working together for a few months now on this specific project, I feel as if I have gained so much knowledge from these two. Both of these women engage in this project in critical ways that help me learn while we’re progressing together.”

Community collaboration

A health guide such as this could make a huge impact on the LGBTQ+ community in Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to work devoted to LGBTQ+ individuals by the UW-Eau Claire women’s studies department. 

In fact, Kemp first met Alex in May 2015 at the first meeting of the Chippewa Valley Safe Spaces Coalition, an organization developed out of collaboration between students in UW-Eau Claire's women’s studies program and community stakeholders in LGBTQ+ issues.

It all started in 2010 when Kemp, who was director of women’s studies at the time and teaching the program's capstone class, worked with Harder to provide her capstone students the opportunity to intern with ARCW. Then in 2013, another women’s studies capstone group under Kemp began gathering contact information for schools with Gay-Straight Alliances as well as LGBTQ+ friendly places of worship, community organizations and other potential resources for LGBTQ+ youth in the area.

This work continued with a 2014 Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant, under which Kemp and Harder worked with women’s studies majors Caitlin Opatik and Erin Bernardy to continue gathering contact information in order to widen the supportive community base for LGBTQ+ youth in the Chippewa Valley. Opatik now works at ARCW as a community-based medical case manager, and Bernardy now works for the Chippewa Family Support Center.

As part of the research grant, the group helped organize what became the first meeting of the Chippewa Valley Safe Spaces Coalition alongside yet another Blugold: alumna Isa Small, programming and communications manager for the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. The first two meetings of the coalition attracted more than 70 attendants and included Safe Space training as well as the formation of subcommittees to address three areas: community needs assessment, community education and community resources.

Alex volunteered to head the resources subcommittee, where he met Kemp. From there, Kemp decided to further encourage Alex’s work with the coalition by applying for another SREU grant, which they ultimately received.

Harder continues to lead Chippewa Valley Safe Spaces Coalition meetings quarterly at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.

Kemp said that the community impact of the Chippewa Valley Safe Spaces Coalition is very real.

“The work is organic and ongoing as the coalition grows and continues to be a point of connection for groups of people," Kemp said. "The people who attend the meetings range from experts on the issues facing LGBTQ+ people to those coming from various community agencies and organizations who want to learn more in order to be better allies to LGBTQ+ community members with whom they interact. It has been gratifying to see how many people are coming together and how much some people are learning through their work with the coalition.”

Photo caption: Alex DeLakis meets with Dr. Theresa Kemp (middle) and Alison Harder to discuss strategies for helping LGBTQ+ individuals find medical care providers who create safe environments.