March 18, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Mautner Project celebrates 20th year

Leslie Calman, the Mautner Project’s executive director, said the organization ‘introduced the rest of the country, including health care providers and government policy makers, to the vision of a lesbian health agenda.’ (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

The Mautner Project, the D.C.-based national lesbian health organization, is celebrating its 20th anniversary Saturday with 800 people gathered for a gala fundraising dinner and dance party at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The group’s founder, Susan Hester, and its executive director, Leslie Calman, say the festive occasion marks the success of an organization that bears the name of a woman whose forward-thinking ideas and untimely death in 1989 became the inspiration for its mission and programs.

“Before she died of cancer at the age of 44, Mary-Helen Mautner asked her partner Susan Hester to create an organization to help other lesbians and their loved ones meet the challenges of life-threatening illnesses,” says the group’s web site. “Susan promised to make Mary-Helen’s dream a reality — and the Mautner Project is a result of that promise.”

With Hester serving as executive director for the first six years, Mautner Project embarked on a mission to fulfill a vision that Hester says her partner sketched out on a single piece of paper while in the hospital shortly before her death.

“She told me that during a bone scan she realized how many lesbians in her situation would not have someone with them,” Hester recalled in a 2008 essay. “They would be going through this all alone. And she had an idea of how to deal with that.”

Before becoming ill, Mautner was an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and a keen observer of the LGBT rights and AIDS advocacy movements, including programs by AIDS groups to assign volunteer “buddies” to assist gay men with AIDS-related illnesses, Hester said.

“She wanted an organization that would provide support for lesbians who didn’t have the support she had,” Hester said.

Calman, who began her tenure as executive director two years ago, said the early vision of both Mary-Helen Mautner and Hester evolved into a nationally acclaimed health services and advocacy organization that, among other things, educates health care professionals on the needs of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.

The organization’s programs include providing direct services and support for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses; and offering support groups for cancer clients, caregivers and others grieving over a loss. It also educates the lesbian, bi and trans communities about preventive health practices and nutrition and offers smoking cessation programs and programs to address obesity.

“The most remarkable thing to me about the Mautner Project is that lesbians came together — created a vibrant organization — and introduced the rest of the country, including health care providers and government policy makers, to the vision of a lesbian health agenda,” Hester told DC Agenda.

“But 20 years later — despite the remarkable exposure of lesbians and gays — there are still more lesbians and gay men who are not out to their health care providers than the number who live free and open lives,” she said. “There are more health care providers who blush or blanch at the idea of working with lesbians than there are who welcome us.”

Calman said Mautner Project currently has a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees and an annual budget of about $900,000. In keeping with its tradition of volunteer help, the group has 60 volunteers who help carry out its programs.

“We’re still small and scrappy,” she said.

Hester and Calman credited former executive director Kathleen DeBold, who headed the organization from 2000 to 2007, with expanding its budget and programs, transforming it from a local group to a national organization.

Last year, the group weighed in on a controversy over when women should begin undergoing mammogram tests for breast cancer. The controversy was triggered by a U.S. government medical task force, which issued recommendations suggesting that mammograms may not be beneficial for women between the ages of 40 and 50.

Among other things, the task force pointed to data showing there was a statistically insignificant difference in the lives saved of women who underwent mammograms in their 40s and those who did not. The task force concluded that the very small difference in the number of breast cancer cases detected in women taking the test in their 40s did not justify the expense, subsequent biopsies and “anxieties” the tests generated.

In an open letter to the community, Calman and D.C. physician Linda Spooner, chair of the Mautner Project’s board of directors, sided with the American Cancer Society, which urged women between 40 and 50 to ignore the task force recommendation and take yearly mammograms.

“Mammography is a diagnostic tool, not a cure, and we need a cure,” Spooner and Calman said in their letter. “But for the task of early and timely detection, mammograms, in conjunction with clinical breast exams, are our best tool.”

They added that the task force’s suggestion that avoiding mammograms would spare women anxiety “strikes us as patronizing and dangerous.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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