Cybelle Rieber tells the story of a conversation she once had with a physician:
“The doctor told me, ‘I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and no one has ever told me they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. I wonder: should I be doing more to make this a safe space?’” Rieber pauses a moment: “I thought that was a great question.”
Rieber is the coordinator of prideHealth, a program mandated to create access to healthcare and safe spaces for people in Nova Scotia’s queer communities. Funded by the Capital District Health Authority (CDHA) and the Izaak Walton Killam Health Centre (IWK), it is the only queer health resource of its kind funded by a health authority in eastern Canada. Two part-time staff – Rieber and nurse specialist Anita Keeping – run the program.
“We heard from the community that a lot of people just don’t feel comfortable going into healthcare institutions and settings,” she says.
Rieber’s work is not confined entirely to hospitals. During a recent syphilis outbreak in Halifax, for example, she took a small group of individuals from the health authority to a local bathhouse.
“They wanted to understand the culture,” she points out. “They wanted to see where men are hooking up here in the city. They wanted to understand it.”
Understanding how and where men hook up for sex is only one of the things Rieber wants her colleagues to know. Transgender individuals, for example, face special issues in terms of names and pronoun usage. Rieber aims to educate medical professionals about cis-sexism and gender identity.
“Sure, on documentation, there has to be a legal name, but people use chosen names as well,” she says. “I tell professionals to ask people, ‘How would you like me to address you, how do you identify yourself?’ I ask people to imagine, ‘How would you want someone to treat you?’”
Keeping does most of her work in the community. She keeps regular monthly hours at four locations across the city: Menz Bar, the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia, The Youth Project and an organization that works with street-involved sex workers called Stepping Stone. She provides counselling, administration of hormone injections, testing for certain sexually transmitted infections and anonymous HIV testing.
She also arranges special meetings with those who can’t or don’t wish to meet at regular locations during regular hours. It’s a commitment to privacy that makes prideHealth a good fit for organizations like Stepping Stone. Rene Ross, Stepping Stone’s executive director, says it’s part of what helps prideHealth foster trust.
“The great thing about programs like this is that it really brings the services to the patients or to potential patients,” says Ross. “Many individuals have experienced discrimination in one way or another from the healthcare system.”
Rieber and Keeping have been working to raise prideHealth’s profile. They recently created an It Gets Better video, featuring staff from all over Capital Health.
They also held a community meeting for those they represent.
“We want to know from the communities how you want prideHealth to show up and continue to do this work,” Reiber says.
Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project administrative co-coordinator Kirk Furlotte says the meetings are a step in the right direction.
“Community consultations like this are a good sign that prideHealth itself is trying to figure out how to best serve the community by directly asking members of the community what prideHealth should be in the future.”
It’s a future for which Rieber remains hopeful.
“We all have a right to equitable health, and we have a right to show up and be treated fairly and be treated with respect,” she says. “If people don’t even know the ways in which they are not being respectful, or don’t even know the ways in which they are not creating space, for us, for people like me and for people like you, then how are they going to make a change?”