5 min

Our health

Queer needs flounder in a mainstream system

Credit: Joshua Meles

Cookies and cakes are not necessarily the items one would expect to be served during a “nutrition break” at a health care conference.

But between the sweets and the treats of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition’s (CRHC) first annual conference in Quebec last month, the first few steps toward a national strategy for improving the health and wellness of queers were taken.

The conference, entitled Rainbow Health 2004 – Improving Access To Care – Many Faces/Diverse Voices, took place at the Holiday Inn Plaza La Chaudière in Gatineau, Nov 4–7.

As the first nationally-focussed forum designed to build partnerships between primary health care practitioners, institutions and GLBT communities, the event provided attendees with a unique opportunity to share experiences, information and ideas about improving the health, wellness and access to care for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.

According to organizers, the conference achieved its objective.

“I think that it was highly successful,” says Gens Hellquist, executive director of the CRHC, after returning home to Saskatoon from Quebec. “We’re actually ecstatic about the outcome of the conference.”

Rainbow Health 2004 was attended by more than 300 individuals working in health and social work, education accreditation and professional associations, students and instructors in the health care fields, health care policy people and representatives of regional health authorities, as well as GLBT people working on health and wellness issues in the community.

The conference workshops, 57 in all, explored a wide variety of topics from queer parenting to lesbian-specific health needs, from same-sex partner abuse to queer youth, from homophobic violence to heterosexism in nursing.

“I think that maybe the one surprise is how such a diverse group of people were able to come together and agree and discuss and learn from one another,” says Hellquist. “I’ve been going to these things for 30 years in this country, and we always seem to get into these little camps, fighting for our own turf, and that didn’t happen at this conference. We came together as one tribe.”

The Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition – formed at a gay and lesbian health services conference in Saskatoon in 2001 – is a collection of groups and individuals from across the country interested in addressing health and wellness issues for queer people.

The CRHC recently received funding from the Primary Health Care Transition Fund of Health Canada to undertake a national initiative that addresses the problems we confront in accessing quality care from Canada’s health care system, with the conference forming an important part of the initiative.

CRHC co-chair Donna Huen says the conference was important not only because it provided queer attendees with an opportunity to share information and experiences with one another, but because it also provided a forum to network and discuss the community’s needs with mainstream health care providers and policy makers from across Canada.

“There are too many people who have been failed by a system that is supposed to treat everyone the same. We need more allies and more effective strategies,” says Huen. “Working for systemic change as a minority is difficult, nevertheless, I believe the tide can change. But we need our allies to be brave, and you must be brave too… because if invisible, we are insignificant to policymakers.”

The need for improving the access to quality health care for trans-identified Canadians was especially prominent during the four-day event.

Several workshops and keynote speakers addressed the immediate need for health and wellness service providers and policy makers to create respectful health services for trans people.

“The issue for trans people is not substandard care, but the absence of care,” says Nichola Ward, a trans woman who attended the conference and moderated a workshop on the issue of trans health.

Ward adds that it is imperative for health care providers to work closely with the trans community in developing and defining appropriate service strategies and needs.

“If you intend to deliver a product to a consumer, it just makes sense to sit down with them,” she says.

This lack of sensitive, culturally appropriate care was highlighted by a demonstration held in support of Cynthia Cousens – an Ottawa trans woman who says she experienced transphobic treatment while a patient at a Gatineau hospital in October – which took place in front of the hospital, which happened to be across the street from the conference’s hotel.

The peaceful protest was organized by Egale Canada and attended by more than 70 supporters, the majority of whom were conference attendees.

According to an information pamphlet handed out by Egale at the protest, last month, while hospitalized for a serious medical condition, Cousens was asked to leave the Centre Hospitalier Des Vallées De l’Outaouais in Gatineau, after informing one of the doctors treating her that she had previously undergone gender reassignment surgery.

“But this is not just about that incident that happened that day to me. It’s about how an institution – particularly a medical health care institution – needs to prevent this from happening again,” says Cousens. “This is a very important message that we have to deliver.”

In addition to the health and wellness of gay, lesbian and transgendered people, the needs of intersexed individuals and their place within the spectrum of queer health care was also raised during the conference, as well as the issue of sexual orientation and the developmentally disabled.

Dave Hingsburger, a gay man and veteran therapist, says similarly to the discrimination against queers, disabled individuals often face “ignorance and prejudice” regarding the healthy expression of their sexuality.

Hingsburger, who was one of the conference’s six keynote speakers, adds that it is important to take a sex-positive approach when dealing with the disabled.

“Something that everybody has to get – from grassroots to the Pope – you can’t cut love out of anybody’s body,” he says, referring to the historic practice of involuntarily castrating intellectually disabled people in an attempt to curb their sexual desire.

With its first successful conference underneath its belt, the CRHC has already begun to look forward to next year’s event.

Board members say they will use the feedback from this month’s conference, including written evaluations distributed and collected during the conference, to not only identify needs and goals for the community regarding health and wellness, but also to help the CRHC prioritize those goals.

“We haven’t had time to look at the conference evaluations – they’re still on the truck on their way back,” says Hellquist with a chuckle from the CRHC’s office in Saskatoon.

Hellquist adds that the coalition should be announcing the time and place of next year’s conference sometime in February.

“[The conference] will be in the fall of next year,” he says. “Our board is meeting in January and at that meeting we will make the decision of where and when.”

In addition, the CRHC also used the conference as an advertising vehicle to announce that the groundbreaking organization is now open to membership. According to Hellquist, dozens of attendees took advantage of the opportunity to join.

“People have already taken membership forms and are submitting them,” he says. “And we hope that the next conference will also be the founding annual general meeting of the coalition, to formally elect a board and do all those things.”

In the meantime, Hellquist says when it comes to access to quality care, the queer community’s work has only just begun.

“I think that it is crucial that, not only the CRHC, but every-body contact your regional health ministers and regional health authorities to draw to their attention the fact that our needs are not being addressed,” he says. “And that the laws of this country say we are all equal and they must begin addressing them in appropriate ways.”

* For more information about the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition visit the organization online at or call toll-free 1-800-955-5129.