Championing LGBTQ+ Healthcare in Mississippi

In many parts of the Southern United States, it’s legal for doctors to deny services to LGBTQ+ people based on their religious beliefs. Meet a team of doctors in Jackson, Mississippi, who are determined to foster an environment where patients have access to the critical healthcare that they need.

AIRED: June 24, 2020 | 0:08:35

(upbeat music) - Access to quality

healthcare is crucial for every American, and yet it remains

out of reach for so many.

For LGBTQ people, the added risk of facing discrimination

in medical settings means they often

don't get the care they need.

(brooding music)

And that's especially true here in the South,

where clinics that are accepting and affirming

of LGBTQ people are hard to find.

A problem that grows even worse in rural areas

where access to health care is already limited.

But here in Jackson, one doctor is trying to change that.

Hi! - Hello.

- [Dyllón] You must be Dr. Rodgers.

- I am.

- [Dyllón] Dr. Rodgers is an openly gay psychiatrist

and co-founder of the Center for LGBT Health.

How did this clinic come to be?

- When we began three years ago,

we really didn't have much in the way

of clinical care for the population,

so we started asking questions about what was needed,

what could we do to help the LGBTQ people living

in Mississippi, and ultimately came up

with the idea of opening a multi-disciplinary clinic

because there really had not been any kind of effort

in that direction from within the medical center

so we thought we would do it,

and we started the Center for LGBTQ Health.

(upbeat music)

- [Dyllón] This multi-disciplinary clinic offers pediatrics,

internal medicine, mental health services, and more.

All specifically geared to the LGBTQ community here.

Did you sort of face any opposition to that?

- We didn't.

I think a lot of people would assume in Mississippi

because it's a socially conservative state,

you would assume there would be a lot of opposition,

but what I found, which was a pleasant surprise,

is that many, many people from across the medical center,

when they became hearing about what we were doing,

they contacted me and said,

"I wanna be a part of that."

So, I'd love to show you around,

would you like to come in, - [Dyllón] I would love to.

and see the clinic?

Okay well great!

Well, come on in.

- What are all of the different health concerns

that this community faces,

that are specific to this community?

- So, for my field in psychiatry,

what we know is that there are higher rates

of some of the more common illnesses like depression,

and there's a higher rate of suicide,

and the most at-risk group are the transgender youth,

and also transgender adults.

But that's a very high-risk group.

We're also just doing primary care here,

and so we're managing things like hypertension,

diabetes, and all the things that any other clinic would do,

but we're doing it in an environment

that is not judgemental, that is affirming,

where it's completely free of prejudice, discrimination.

- [Dyllón] Having a space free of discrimination

is critically important.

In the Deep South like Mississippi,

it's legal for doctors to deny service

to LGBT people based on religious beliefs.

And to make matters worse,

the South has the highest concentration of people living

with HIV and AIDS in the country,

with many calling it an epidemic.

And results from one recent study

show that in Jackson, Mississippi, a staggering 40% of men

who have sex with men, are living with HIV.

Yet, the threat of discrimination prevents many

from seeking the care they need,

something Dr. Rodgers is determined to change.

- I wanna introduce you to a couple of people.

- Okay.

- So this is Dr. Joy Houston.

- [Dyllón] Hi.

- And this is Wes McComason, and Wes is

- a patient here. - Nice to meet you.

- Nice to meet you.

- And so for you, Wes, what is it like

to have a place like this to come to?

- It's a breath of fresh air.

I also am from Mississippi and grew up in Mississippi,

and it's a place where I can be myself

and have discussions, talk, and say whatever I need

to say as a gay male.

I came out in 1986.

Even when I went to get an HIV test,

right down the street from the health department,

and I was told that I needed Jesus.

They were more concerned that I was a sinner

than the fact that I could be HIV positive.

And that changed my life forever.

Since then I have had a very hard time going to clinics,

trusting anyone, doctors.

There would be things that I would never tell them about,

if I had a boyfriend or what I was doing.

I wouldn't talk to them about it.

And physically, there were things that happened

because I didn't tell them.

I kept it quiet because I didn't want

to go through that again.

- Yeah.

I mean I think when I go to the doctor,

one of the most important things for me is being able

to be as honest as I can about what I've been going through.

If I'm going in for testing, or for sexual health things,

I need to be open about, you know, my sexual activity.

I need to be able to be open about, you know,

my mental state, to be able to discuss

and actually have adequate treatment.

Do you encounter a lot of patients who are guarded

when they're coming in here,

that sort of have to get used to the fact

that this is an open space?

- Not in this clinic, because we've basically posted

it on the door that this is an open space,

this is a safe space.

This is the place that you can come and get services,

and be assured that people are going to treat you

in a respectful and affirming manner.

- [Dyllón] Yeah.

- And I think that actually relieves a lot

of the tension, at least for people that I've seen,

because they've got the guarantee at the door.

- Yeah.

How's your sort of healthcare changed

since they've been open?

- Well, my high blood pressure's down.

I actually can talk to a doctor

who I know will take care of my needs.

I didn't go to a doctor for a very long time,

and I'm a social worker, I mean,

you'd think you could trust people,

but this is deep down here.

When you talk about Mississippi, being gay,

and the medical field.

And I feel much healthier now.

I really do, and I feel like I can come

and talk about anything and get help.

That means a lot to me.

- [Dyllón] Dr. Rodgers is also dedicated

to serving another group

that often faces barriers when it comes to health services.

The trans community.

Despite the fact that there are over 500,000 trans people

living in the South, Dr. Rodgers and his colleagues are one

of the few medical teams

in Mississippi providing health care

with a focus on trans issues.

- Were you trained in like transgender issues

when you were going through medical school?

- [Scott] No.

- No?

- For me, I went to medical school in the '90s

and then did residency training in the late '90s,

finished in 2000, and there was

minimal, minimal coverage of the topic.

Really, no coverage of transgender health at all.

- And so how did all of you get educated?

What was your process of figuring out

how do you care for these people?

- For me, it was having been in Boston,

I learned about the Fenway Clinic,

and now it's called the Fenway Institute,

serving 35,000 patients, half of whom identify as LGBTQ.

Took a delegation from this university to Boston.

We spent three days up there learning as much as we could.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel.

There's a lot that's already understood,

there's a process, we just had to learn it.

- [Dyllón] The need for better training and competency

when it comes to trans health issues is huge.

- Our patients are allowed to give their preferred names,

their pronouns, and then we do everything we can

to use that name and that pronoun

as we communicate with our patients.

We've also updated all of the policies in the hospital,

to be LGBTQ-friendly.

- [Dyllón] Yeah.

- And that needed to happen.

And so, we're doing what we can now

to try to educate the next generation of providers.

- [Dyllón] So, you are actually impacting the way

health care is happening in other areas,

in other fields,

- Across the board. across the board.

- Because our mission is to improve the health

of three million people calling Mississippi home

and that includes LGBTQ people.

So, that's what we're trying to do.

It means a lot to us that you came though,

and spent time with us this afternoon.

Thanks so much for that.

- Thank you.

And thank you for the work that you do.

- Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to meet you.

(cheerful music)