Breast cancer is generally not at the forefront when LGBT issues are discussed, even though it impacts a significant, yet often invisible, segment of the community.
Lesbian and bisexual women are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer than heterosexual women. Yet despite this, breast cancer is almost never mentioned when activists discuss issues that adversely affect the LGBT community.
Much of this is because, despite the progress that major LGBT activist groups have made to be inclusive, the concerns of gay men still dominate the conversation. This is not necessarily done intentionally, as many LGBT organizations are overwhelmingly male and, consequently, those groups may not realize the omission.
As breast cancer awareness month is winding down, I realized that once again, the only LGBT groups that are focusing on breast cancer are those whose main objectives are centered on lesbian health issues, such as the Mautner Project, now part of Whitman-Walker Health. The American Cancer Society realizes the detrimental impact that breast cancer has on lesbian and bisexual women, and as a result, dedicates a page on its website to addressing cancer facts that particularly concern our community.
There are both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to higher breast cancer rates among lesbian and bisexual women. According to the American Cancer Society, women are at a higher risk for breast cancer if they “have not had children and have not breast-fed, have not used oral contraceptives and are older when they first give birth — all factors more likely to affect lesbians and bisexual women.”
Additionally, the American Cancer Association also mentions environmental factors that impact our community at higher rates, such as obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse and less access to health insurance. Additionally, fear of discrimination by health care providers causes lesbian and bisexual women to avoid going to the doctor and obtaining the routine screenings necessary to diagnose the disease early.
It’s common for members of the LGBT community to avoid places where we have faced discrimination. However that avoidance becomes dangerous when you are a woman and it causes you to avoid getting necessary reproductive health screenings. You often hear of places that the community as a whole avoids, such as homophobic churches, but you seldom hear stories of the women who have experienced hateful conduct by their gynecologist, so they stopped going in for exams. Consequently, there are major campaigns dedicated to informing the community of welcoming churches, but not the same effort to inform lesbian and bisexual women of welcoming spaces to get women wellness exams.
It’s difficult to know the exact impact that breast cancer has on lesbian and bisexual women because the research is not there.
“The large national cancer registries and surveys do not collect data about sexual orientation, leaving lesbians embedded and invisible among this vast wealth of information,” according to Liz Margolies, founder of the National LGBT Cancer Network. Thus, one of the first things we need to do is force the major cancer registries to start collecting data on sexual orientation, get some of the major cancer organizations to do extensive research on the impact that breast cancer has on lesbian and bisexual women, address the precise causes of any disparities and come up with suggested solutions to address them.
It’s time for the community to realize that issues that adversely impact lesbian and bisexual women are LGBT issues. Breast cancer and its effect on lesbian and bisexual women should be given a larger focus in the community, just as issues that disproportionately affect the gay male segment of our community, such as HIV/AIDS, are given. If we want society as a whole to understand our issues, we need to ensure that we are setting an example by understanding and advocating for issues that impact every segment of the LGBT community.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.