This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2011 - The Missouri attorney general's office is now keeping track of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a spokesperson said this week.
Nanci Gonder, Attorney General Chris Koster's press secretary, notes that the Missouri Human Rights Act does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and that the state's Human Rights Commission has no data on these complaints.
"After hearing this concern following meetings with representatives of the LGBT community, the attorney general agreed to receive information concerning alleged inequities based on sexual orientation or gender identity," Gonder said.
"While the system is fairly new and there are not yet much data, the office's collection of such information is an attempt to assess the magnitude of these concerns."
This action is the outcome of a meeting last fall between Koster and representatives of the gay and lesbian community. The meeting hasn't received much media attention, but the outcome is regarded as a big deal, says Sherrill Wayland, executive director of SAGE Metro St. Louis, an organization serving older gays and lesbians.
Koster's decision does not mean lesbians and gays will have legal recourse to address the bias, she says, "but we can at least start collecting data to see what's happening."
This action is one of two developments that has elated Missouri's gay and lesbian community in recent months. The other, more far-reaching, is a ground-breaking federal Health and Human Services report that calls for unprecedented research into recommendations for improving health care for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. Read the report.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says the report will help identify "research gaps and opportunities, as part of an overall effort to understand and address the health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. We look forward to continuing our work to address these needs and reduce LGBT health disparities."
Wayland says that report is "just the first step, but it's monumental. This is the blueprint we've been waiting for. Now it's up to the local community to start helping to implement policies as they come into place. I'm amazed that the government is really taking a serious look at what's happening."
Some of what's happening on the health front, she says, was revealed in SAGE's own survey last year. It showed that 13 percent of LGBT Missourians lacked health insurance, and that 55 percent feared health professionals would discriminate against them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Another 60 percent reported a shortage of health professionals with adequate training to treat them.
Among other things, the federal report makes a commitment to include LGBT data in federally funded surveys and advise states on ways to protect the assets of same-sex partners when one uses Medicaid for long-term care.
"If one member of the household has to go into a nursing home, they could lose their house and savings because they don't have the same protection that married heterosexual couples have," Wayland says.
Equally enthusiastic about the HHS report is Dr. Ken Haller, associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University Medical School. He is also president of the board of PROMO, a statewide gay and lesbiam civil rights group, and a former president of the St. Louis Pediatric Society.
The new HHS policies, he says, mean that these data will be part of the Healthy People project. This is information the government uses to develop national, science-based objectives for promoting health and preventing disease each decade. Healthy People 2010 marks the first inclusion of LGBT health issues, Haller says.
"It means that for the next 10 years when researchers look for research projects to do, this is sort of the bible they'll use," Haller says. He also praises efforts to include sexual orientation and gender identity to more health and demographic surveys, especially those funded by the federal government.
"This is really huge," he says because all the data that have been collected for decades have excluded questions about sexual orientation.
"Just adding those questions will give researchers tons of data to work with to find out what the particular health needs are that we may not be aware of. It's really going to help in future research."
As a primary care pediatrician at Cardinal Glennon Hospital, Haller doesn't focus on LGBT patients. But he says all health providers should know how to be respectful of these patients.
Wayland says that in some communities, health-care providers have denied care to lesbians or gays or didn't treat them with the same respect they treat other people. She says this probably has happened in Missouri, but that the victims chose not to make a fuss about it because they may not feel comfortable talking about their sexuality with others. They may feel there is no place to voice complaints. That's why Koster's action is important, Wayland says.
But she and Haller say that the HHS report and Koster's decision show that progress is being made. They add that the American Medical Association already has begun paying attention to medical issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, and that cultural competency programs touching on these issues are now part of the curriculum at some medical schools.
"As with any equality movement, change doesn't happen overnight," Wayland says, citing the civil rights and the disability movements. "The LGBT community is the equality movement today."
Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.