Is the LGBT Community Getting Healthier? Survey Says No.

Photo: Roey Ahram/Flickr
Photo: Roey Ahram/Flickr

A new survey of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Coachella Valley generally shows good news: most participants are insured and say they’re in “good”, “very good” or “excellent” health. However, it also identified serious health gaps, showing that LGBT study participants have high rates of mental illness and domestic violence.

This first-of-its-kind survey was developed by the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, which is based in Palm Springs. The LGBT population in that city is estimated to be 40-60%, the third-highest in the nation.

Dr. Jill Gover, who directed the study, says many of the health issues can be blamed on past discrimination and abuse, particularly among participants who reached adulthood before the 1980s. “They were traumatized on many different levels. Some people were physically beaten up. Some people were psychologically bullied and blackmailed. Some people lived in fear, some people were stigmatized. When you’re traumatized as a young adult it stays with you your whole life. There is residual scarring,” says Gover.

The Center sent the survey out to its members and posted it online for a 7-week period. Because the survey is anonymous, it’s not possible tell if the survey’s 769 respondents are representative of the larger LGBT population.

LGBT Health Survey from on Vimeo.

The Health Assessment Resource Center in Palm Desert put together the statistics for the survey, which included 547 gay participants, 117 lesbians, 31 bisexuals, 54 heterosexuals and 20 transgendered people. More than 90 percent are White, non-Hispanic. It is unknown whether the survey reached many in the largely Hispanic East Valley, where poverty rates are higher, insurance rates are lower and fewer LGBT services exist.

“While many of us in the western valley are out and live openly, I would suspect that as one moves eastward the numbers of minority LGBT increases – and with it the cultural and religious biases increase,” says Councilman Greg Pettis from nearby Cathedral City. “We need to look at how this affects mental health and how we can lessen the impact on people.”

The study showed more than 80 percent report having a chronic illness like high cholesterol, arthritis and hepatitis. Only 15 percent smoke cigarettes and less than 10 percent binge drink. However, 30 percent have used illicit drugs in the past year. By comparison, federal stats show that about nine percent of people over 12 have used illegal drugs in the past month.

The survey showed that 64 percent of participants are overweight or obese, much higher than the general population. However much of that number can be explained by the fact that more than 80 percent of the survey participants are over 50. “Higher obesity rates increase levels of depression and anxiety,” Pettis adds, “because we don’t fit in to what we perceive gay people are supposed to look like.”

The survey results bear this out. More than 50 percent of participants have been diagnosed with a mental illness, mostly depression, anxiety and panic disorder. That number is much higher than the general population. Sixty percent said they’d sought professional help. Many said culturally competent LGBT therapy is generally too expensive or hard to find. Tragically, 25 percent have considered suicide, which is much higher than the national figure of 3.7 percent.

George Zander, of the group Equality California, took the survey. He is optimistic about LGBT health issues because the Affordable Care Act now requires insurance plans sold on the health exchanges to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment. “This is going to be crucial for our community to get the help that they need,” Zander says.

Some of the statistics on sexual health have significant public health implications. For example, 19 percent have been diagnosed with HIV and 9 percent with AIDS. Sixty-five of respondents had multiple partners and half of them did not ask about HIV status before sex. “Thirty-five percent never use protection. That’s people who had anywhere from 2-10 partners in a year. So that says to me that we have a lot more work to do around educating people about sexual health.” The report also found that lesbians and transgender people were more likely to be monogamous compared to gay males.

David Brinkman, CEO of The Desert Aids Project notes that the survey’s numbers on monogamy, condom use and the percentage of people who ask about HIV status are similar to those in the heterosexual community. He adds. “The virus doesn’t discriminate. Statistics show that a quarter of a million Americans are HIV positive but don’t know it. That works out to about 1,000 people in the Coachella Valley who could be unknowingly spreading HIV.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 25 percent of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. By contrast, this survey showed that 35% of lesbians reported intimate partner violence. Almost three quarters of respondents said there is a need for LGBT-specific domestic violence treatment. “There is some significant difference from the heterosexual battered woman and male batterer,” Gover says. “That dynamic is really different than what we call mutually combative couples. You tend to see more mutually combative couple violence in the gay community.”

The LGBT Community Center of the Desert offers counseling services, she adds, and would like to find the funding to offer a court-approved program for LGBT domestic violence offenders.

The Desert Healthcare District contributed almost $70,000 for the study. Service providers will now be able to use the hard data to back-up their requests for grant money to address the problems identified in the report.

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