Five Things Dentists Can Do to Help LGBTQ+ People Feel Open to Care
Guest blog post by Dr. Alex Barrera
Dr. Alex Barrera practices general dentistry at Avenue 360 Health & Wellness in Houston, Texas. He currently serves as President of the Houston Dental Equality Network and is the chairman of the New Dentist Committee for the Hispanic Dental Association. Dr. Barrera is an advocate for LGBTQ+ health and uses his platform to educate dental professionals on how to better care for the LGBTQ+ population.
Too often, the role of dentistry and its connection to overall health is forgotten — and its impact on the LGBTQ+ community is no exception. For example, while many LGBTQ+ community programs have established partnerships with affirming medical clinics where they refer their clients for care, dental providers are not usually on the list. And few practicing dentists think to proactively seek out relationships with LGBTQ+ organizations.
It’s a system that exacerbates the history of discrimination or fear that LGBTQ+ patients tend to have when it comes to seeking out health care. And since dental care is such an intimate experience, many queer patients tend to postpone oral health care until it’s too late. This leads to higher incidences of pain, dental emergencies and financial struggles.
Here are five simple ways dental professionals can provide quality care to LGBTQ+ patients.
1. Recognize your privilege and use it for good.
It is difficult to understand the realities of discrimination without experiencing them firsthand. Simply existing as a heterosexual or cisgender person is a privilege for countless reasons such as not being fired from your job for your sexuality and being able to hold your partner's hand in public without fear. Recognize that you are not responsible for the discrimination, but you are responsible for what you do with that knowledge, how you move on from there, and what you do with your privilege.
2. Learn and use inclusive language.
It is important for all of us, but especially health care providers, to use the right words and pronouns when referring to someone or describing gender identity or sexual orientation. Do not assume someone's gender identity or sexual orientation. Ask if you are unsure, and if it is appropriate. Begin to update your intake forms and electronic health records to include options for genders other than male or female, and to include a space for a preferred name versus legal name. A list of some basic LGBTQ+ terms can be found here.
3. Be okay with being uncomfortable.
You might make mistakes when trying to be a better ally at first, and that's okay. Making non-intentional mistakes is how learning happens. It may also be difficult to show your allyship, in fear that friends or patients may not share your same beliefs. Standing up for your values during these challenging conversations and encounters will make you a more confident ally and will give you the respect of other patients and staff.
4. Be visible as an ally.
Quite often, the smallest thing can make a huge impact. Things such as decorating your office for Pride month, making a post on social media, or advertising in an LGBTQ+ magazine will show your support as an LGBTQ+ affirming dental professional. Be cognizant about including imagery of diverse individuals when advertising or when hiring staff.
5. Don't minimize our queerness.
I cannot count how many times I have been told something along the lines of, “I couldn't tell you were gay,” or “Oh, but you're not that gay.” Every queer person relates to their queerness differently, so telling someone that you don't acknowledge or think about their queerness is not a compliment and makes us feel like you think of our queerness as something that's better left unsaid.
As health care and dentistry continue to make progress, the only way we can have true equality is through the allyship of our heterosexual colleagues and those in leadership positions. I encourage all dental professionals to take the time to question their own subconscious biases and to also include LGBTQ+ topics when seeking out continuing education and trainings for themselves and their staff members. It is only with continued awareness, education and celebration, can we come together to ensure that the world is a safer and happier place for all.