- September 11, 2014
Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
In 1999, Robert Eads, a transgender man from Georgia, died of ovarian cancer after being refused treatment by more than 20 different doctors because of his gender identity. By the time he found a doctor who would help him, Eads’ cancer had advanced beyond treatment.
After Eads’ death, his partner Lola started the Robert Eads Health Partnership at the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC). The goal: provide transgender men and transmasculine-identified people with free lower exams and consultations, medical attention that they might not otherwise receive because of anti-trans stigma and the marginalization and poverty that so often accompany it.
“She put the program together so that nobody would ever have to go through the kind of hell that Robert did,” Program Director Blake Alford explained. Having faced discrimination himself at the hands of healthcare providers, Alford felt compelled to accept the position of director of the Robert Eads Health Partnership three years ago.
Adam Christianson, who came to Atlanta from Chicago last week to attend his first SCC, attended in part because of the program. Christianson’s mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer three years ago.
“I was always too scared to get a check-up, and when I came out as trans to my doctor, she refused to see me,” he explained. “She said that it would make her other clients uncomfortable.”
Because of his doctor’s rejection, Christianson had not had an exam in more than 10 years until last weekend.
“It would probably be another 10 years before I’d even have the courage to try again,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel safe going to a doctor on my own.”
As director of the program, Blake Alford recruited Dr. Alan Perry from Piedmont to treat patients in a general doctor’s office where they’d be more comfortable, rather than at a women’s clinic. Many of the program participants sit in the waiting room together.
“When I heard it was with a bunch of other transgender men who understand what I’m going through, it seemed like it wasn’t such an embarrassing thing,” said Christianson. “Everyone was so nice. No ‘she.’ All proper pronouns. I was treated with complete respect. It was a great experience.”
The program typically serves between five and ten transgender men a year, and Alford estimates that it has caught at least six cases of cancer in the last three years. In one case, a young man’s mother brought him to the conference to participate in the program. “He had absolutely no money,” Alford recalled. After the young man’s exam, Dr. Perry wanted to do more tests that were not covered in the program, but he and his mother could not afford it, so “Dr. Perry took the money out of his pocket and did the blood work, and the kid had some kind of cancer,” which a surgeon agreed to treat at reduced cost.
Lillian Suarez credits the program for saving her fiancé Kristopher’s life after a routine exam found abnormal cells several years ago.
“Kristopher needed a radical hysterectomy, which he could not afford,” she recalls. “It was scary. Alford helped him get referred to a clinic where he was tested again and diagnosed with cervical cancer.”
Kristopher had surgery at almost no cost and now gets yearly check ups at SCC to make sure there isn’t a recurrence.
Under Alford’s leadership, the program has developed a partnership with Piedmont Hospital, a leader in HRC’s 2013 Healthcare Equality Index, which helped them defray some of the costs. In the future, he hopes to expand the program to include exams for transgender women as well.