The scarlet letters: HPV

Queerly Political

Two years ago, I got a voicemail from my doctor, demanding that I call her immediately.

When I finally got a hold of her, she told me that I had “squamous intraepithelial lesions” and a high-risk strain of human papillomavirus, or HPV. I proceeded to ask her what that meant, and she — without any explanation — told me that these lead to cervical cancer and that I needed to see a specialist promptly.

The call ended, and I was in shock. I didn’t understand what was going on or how severe HPV was. My doctor made it seem as if it was the end of the world, but she also failed to even explain the severity of it. I felt like she was judging me — like I was a modern-day Hester Prynne, with a capital red “HPV” stitched on my shirt.

Finding an OB-GYN that took my insurance was a whole other ordeal. I went to three different clinics suggested by my doctor’s office — two of which made me feel so uncomfortable that I left before a consultation. At the last clinic I went to, the nurse coldly told me that I needed a colposcopy and, again without explanation, proceeded to make an appointment for it.

When the nurse left, I felt uncomfortable and completely uninformed. It wasn’t until I went home to look online did I learn that the procedure would essentially require a doctor to cut pieces of my cervix out if they appeared to be abnormal under a microscope. I shouldn’t have had to research medical information myself — I should’ve been informed on the procedure by my doctors.

Growing up with insurance through the state of California meant that I lacked access in choice and quality of doctors. Because Medi-Cal reimbursements are so low, few doctors feel inspired to work through the system. My doctors were constantly changing, always inconsistent and always pushing their ideologies onto my body. Even having access to this health care is a privilege — about 8.8 percent of people in the United States did not have health insurance in 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Not only did my doctors lack transparency, but I also felt judged for my sexual orientation and gender. My doctors continuously made the assumption that I was only sleeping with men — when they educated me on how to have safe sex, they only spoke about it in the context of heterosexual sex.

When I asked my doctors how to prevent STIs when being sexually active with other genders, they merely responded, “You don’t have to worry about that.” They perpetuated the (incorrect) idea that any interaction that isn’t with a man isn’t “high risk” — that because I’m a queer woman, I don’t have to “worry” about safe sex. They consistently referred to condoms, but they never educated me on the proper use of dental dams.

My doctors would also constantly judge my necessity for birth control, despite me needing it to function and combat my anemia. Ever since I was young, I’ve had chronic menstrual pain and periods to the point where it was incapacitating. One of my friends even told me that her doctor made her repeat that she would not have sex until marriage after finding out she was on birth control.

I felt uncomfortable in a space where I was supposed to feel comfortable — the people I was supposed to turn to for deeply personal medical advice didn’t understand my needs. So I decided to be my own advocate and made an appointment at Planned Parenthood with my results from my regular doctor’s office.

At the clinic, I nervously waited for the doctor. She spent literally 20 minutes answering all of my questions. She told me that the invasive procedure my doctor had suggested was unnecessary for someone under the age of 25, because my body would likely fight off the infection before it would lead to cancer.

She also told me that about 80 percent of sexually active people get HPV at some point in their lives. Just hearing this statistic made me feel less ostracized  — I didn’t feel ashamed now that I knew how common HPV was.

This experience taught me the importance of high-quality, intersectional and inclusive health care. Since then, I persistently receive all of my reproductive and sexual health care needs at Planned Parenthood. And when I discovered that Planned Parenthood provides comprehensive health care, I switched to their services.

It felt humanizing to receive health care that respected my sexual orientation. The doctors at Planned Parenthood understood that neither gender nor sex is a binary. They listened to stories of sexual assault and violence. They taught healthy sexual practices rather than shaming me for being sexually active.

They made me feel like a human being, rather than a number on a long list of patients.

Kaitlyn Hodge writes the Thursday blog on queer issues. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kaitlynhodge.