A while ago, I gave a talk on LGBT health to a group of primary care pediatricians. Although I was glad that they invited me to speak, I also sensed some discomfort in the audience. At the end of the lecture, many pediatricians told me that they were uncomfortable with bringing up the topic of sexuality and gender identity with their patients, and others wanted guidance on how to ask questions on sexuality and gender identity.
There are many barriers for primary pediatricians in addressing sexuality and gender identity concerns in their patients. First, pediatricians often will have up to 15 minutes for a visit, so they will have little time to address a complex issue. Second, primary care pediatricians may have known many of their patients since birth, and asking questions on sexuality and gender can feel awkward. Finally, many pediatricians may be working in more conservative areas in the country where asking questions on sexuality and gender identity may be controversial.
Nevertheless, they will encounter LGBT patients whether they’re comfortable with it or not. It would be a disservice to ignore the health needs of LGBT patients. To expect them to go to a clinic whose providers are more comfortable with LGBT health issues would create major barriers for this vulnerable population, as many of these clinics are in urban areas and would require extensive traveling to reach. Contact with a primary care provider may be the only time when an LGBT youth will interact with the health care system. It can be a critical time, when pediatricians may have a positive impact on the health outcomes of the LGBT patient.
Although a very important topic, there is not much empirical evidence on how to ask questions on sexuality and gender appropriately, and most of these recommendations are based on my own experience working with LGBT youth. Regardless, I hope these pointers will help the primary care pediatrician address the needs of LGBT youth efficiently and with sensitivity.
Tip No. 1: The environment counts
I cannot overstate how important it is to make your clinic a welcoming place for LGBT youth. Having various signs and stickers – like rainbow flags or the Human Rights Campaign sticker – will signal to LGBT youth that they are safe in your clinic. Creating a safe and welcoming environment is important because many people in the LGBT community have experienced rejection and discrimination from their primary care doctors.1 Making your clinic a safe space will make it easier and efficient for patients to ask questions about sexuality and gender identity (see Dr. Gaya Chelvakumar’s column “Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, families in health care settings” at pediatricnews.com).
Tip No. 2: Consider the context
Most likely, many presenting complaints – such as colds or sports injuries – of your adolescent patients will not involve sexual orientation or gender identity. There are exceptions. If you suspect an STD, then the risk for certain infections, such as HIV2 or gonorrhea of the anus or of the pharynx3 are higher in gay young men. For the latter, your screening method would be different (that is, obtaining a pharyngeal swab or an anal swab instead of a urine sample). Also, because many LGBT youth have higher rates of mental health problems compared with heterosexual youth,4 you may want to ask questions about sexuality or gender identity to patients complaining of depressive or anxiety symptoms. This is especially important for transgender youth, because the implementation of pubertal blockers or cross-sex hormones can be therapeutic.5 To prevent or reduce many of these health problems, asking about sexuality and gender identity is a good idea during the well visit, when you may have more time.
Tip No. 3: Not all developmental stages are considered equal
Adolescence is a period of rapid and phasic growth. Formation of an identity is one of the major psychosocial tasks for adolescence,6 and sexuality and gender are important identities. In general, in early adolescence identity becomes an issue as the teenager gains autonomy from parents. I typically start asking questions about sexuality and gender when the patient is 11 or 12, because many children may not understand sexuality and gender identity at a younger age. At these ages, I ask these questions with the parents in the room, then I ask them confidentially on subsequent well visits. This approach serves two purposes: it will prepare the adolescent for these complex and thought-provoking questions in future encounters, and it gives the parents an idea of the type of questions you will ask the children when they are old enough for the confidential visit, helping parents feel more comfortable in stepping out of the room during this time.
Tip No. 4: Keep it confidential
Many adolescents are reluctant to see a doctor, even if they are sick. The primary reason adolescents do not seek care is the fear that the provider will tell their parents about their illness.7 Although this should be applicable to all of your adolescent patients, you should make an extra effort to explicitly state to LGBT patients that the clinic visit is confidential (with the exception of risk of suicide, homicide, or child abuse). This is important for LGBT youth who are not out to their parents and may be in danger if they do come out.8
Tip No. 5: Normalize, normalize, normalize
Because of the stigma and discrimination surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity, many LGBT youth will be reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to their health care providers. At the same time, heterosexual youth may think that you’re asking them questions about sexuality or gender identity because you suspect them to be a member of the LGBT community. To avoid this awkward situation, many pediatricians do not ask these questions at all. A good remedy for this is to preface your questions about sexual orientation or gender identity by saying that you ask these questions to all your patients – that way no one feels singled out.
Tip No. 6: Ask for permission
As previously mentioned, members of the LGBT community may experience discrimination from their health care providers after disclosing to them their sexual orientation or gender identity.1 This rejection can be traumatizing for LGBT youth, making them reluctant to discuss any issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity with any medical provider. As part of the trauma-informed approach, asking for permission before delving into issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity will give LGBT patients a sense of control, especially in an environment where there is a significant power differential.
Tip No. 7: Treat this as a skill
Despite the pressures for primary care pediatricians to maintain an efficient and effective clinical practice, many strive to learn new skills to provide the best care for their patients. Asking questions about sexuality and gender identity should be one of those skills. As with any skill, it will feel unnatural at first, and it will require practice. Mastering this skill, however, will help you address the health needs of this vulnerable population.
Asking questions about sexuality and gender identity is difficult for the primary care pediatrician. Hopefully, these tips can help you develop this important skill. It will also help you reach out to a population that is wary of the health care system.
5. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2011;7(8):466-72 . 6. Neinstein LS. Adolescent health care: a practical guide. 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008.
Dr. Montano is an adolescent medicine fellow at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh. Email him at email@example.com .