March 18, 2010 | by Leslie J. Calman
Invisible no more

Lesbian activists, writers and organizers were at the heart of the women’s movement that thrived in the 1960s and 70s. Lesbians worked tirelessly for the rights of all women, including the right to abortion and for publicly funded childcare – issues not at the forefront of lesbians’ needs. But those same lesbians were frequently stigmatized within the movement: In 1969 Betty Friedan famously labeled us “the lavender menace” and didn’t renounce that point of view until 1977.

In the 1980s and 90s, gay men in the U.S. suffered and died by the tens of thousands from AIDS. Lesbians advocated aggressively for public support of efforts to control the epidemic and volunteered countless hours to care for their gay friends. A study done in the 1990s of lesbians in Los Angeles found that 84 percent had contributed money to AIDS-related causes, 53 percent had volunteered their time, and 31 percent had helped care for someone with AIDS.

But while lesbians served others, they often remained invisible.

In 1989, as she was a few weeks away from dying of breast cancer, lesbian activist Mary-Helen Mautner conceived of an organization that would put lesbians at the center of the story. Soon after, her partner Susan Hester and a group of friends made it happen: the Mary-Helen Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer was born, with an initial mission of direct care by volunteers for lesbians with breast cancer. This community-based care remains a vital part of our program today.

For these past 20 years, Mautner Project (renamed in 2008) has worked locally and nationally for the health of women who partner with women. A vital component of that health is visibility.

LBT health is deeply affected by stigma and discrimination. Our community too often avoids health care because we’ve experienced hostile or foolish treatment that assumes heterosexuality. (No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I’m sure. No really: I’m really, REALLY sure!)

The best predictor of whether a woman has health insurance is if she is married — and more of us don’t have health insurance than our heterosexual counterparts. Some of us react to the stress of stigma with cigarettes – we smoke more than heterosexual women. We may drink too much alcohol, or eat too much. We adopt our own community norms that say these behaviors are OK, because they’re different, and because we’re different.

But they’re not healthy.

So health is about eating well, exercising, getting regular checkups and screenings. But it’s also about making changes in the society around us: we can’t all take proper care of our bodies when we’re swimming in a sea of social ignorance or hostility. We won’t go for medical care if we expect to be treated disrespectfully. We won’t listen to health professionals if they aren’t speaking our language. And we may not change our behavior if our community doesn’t support the change.

Mautner Project has educated some 6,000 health care professionals around the country on how to remove barriers that inhibit them from giving knowledgeable, respectful care to all their patients. And Mautner Project has been educating the women in our community about what we need to do for our health, and how to stand up for ourselves and what we need and deserve.

For 20 years, we have advocated, too, with federal and local governments to make the needs of LBT people central, and to respond to those needs. Whether testifying before the Institute of Medicine or the Centers for Disease Control or the District’s health department, Mautner Project has led in the struggle for LBT visibility, and joined with our many colleague organizations to press the federal government to count us in census findings and in health surveys because too often, when we’re not counted, we’re treated as if we don’t count.

The sense of family that led to Mautner Project’s founding – taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other – is today part of our broader sense of community. As Ginny Sullivan, one of the board members of Mautner Project, always says, when we kick down doors, we’ve got to pull along with us as many folks as we can.

On Mautner Project’s 20th anniversary and with the support of Washington’s LGBT community and our allies everywhere, we look forward to knocking down some more barriers.

Leslie J. Calman, Ph.D., is executive director of the Mautner Project, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend. Reach her at lcalman@mautnerproject.org.

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