During this year's Transgender Awareness Week (which culminates with the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20), Planned Parenthood of Illinois (PPIL) is highlighting its Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy (GAHT) program that has expanded to 18 health centers across the state.
This service gives transgender patients who are living in rural downstate community's access to gender-affirming care that they would otherwise not be able to receive.
"PPIL takes a client-centered approach to meet the individual needs of our patients," said PPIL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Amy Whitaker in a press release. "The trans and gender non-conforming community is largely underserved and we aim to fill the existing gap in care by providing compassionate, respectful care to genders across the spectrum. We feel this service is crucial because in many cases hormone therapy is providing a lifesaving service."
For PPIL Transgender Intake Coordinator and Community Educator Dana Skyye Garber this work is a labor of love. Garber retired from a 35 year career at a Pekin, Illinois electric power generating plant and two years later came out as a transgender woman. This led to Garber's involvement with the Peoria Transgender Society (PTGS) and her current job at PPIL.
"In April 2016, PTGS held a health summit and invited area medical and mental health providers in an attempt to bring LGBTQ affirming services to Peoria and central Illinois," said Garber. "Many of us were traveling to Chicago and St. Louis for our hormone therapy, and many more simply could not, or did not have the means to travel for their healthcare. Several counselors came to our summit showing interest, but the only medical provider that showed up was PPIL and they were definitely interested and brought GAHT to central Illinois in August 2016.
"For example, I started my hormone therapy at Howard Brown Health in Chicago, a three and a half hour trip from my home simply because this service was not available downstate at that time. GAHT requires medical supervision, labs and follow-up visits every 90 days initially. Having these providers in or near your hometown is crucial, especially for patients who do not have the means for a trip to Chicago every three months.
"Many in our transgender community struggle with healthcare disparities such as income and employment discrimination. The informed consent model our GAHT program follows is a simple low-cost and gatekeeper free way to transition; we also offer sliding fee scale for GAHT."
Garber is a member of the behavioral health team and works under the licensed clinical providers. She performs the in-person psychosocial intake interview with GAHT patients at the PPIL Peoria and Pekin health centers.
"The goal of this interview is to understand the client's needs, better coordinate their clinical care, help put them at ease with the process, assess their support systems, educate them about our GAHT program, connect them to much needed resources for their transitions and establish informed consent," said Garber. "I also perform insurance medication prior-authorizations statewide for our patients' prescriptions, and perform case management for clients needing assistance with such things as letters for name and gender marker changes, surgery etc. I write help guides and resource handouts to share with our GAHT patients to help make their lives and transitions go just a little bit easier."
Garber said that since the COVID-19 pandemic began PPIL has been doing Tele-health visits, including the in-take interviews she conducts.
PPIL currently has over 1,250 GAHT patients, 65 percent of whom live in central and downstate Illinois. This is just one of the many services that PPIL provides for the entire LGBTQ community.
Garber said PPIL's GAHT services are needed the most in "areas outside of the city of Chicago and downstate because those places have far fewer affirming healthcare options for the LGBTQ community, and we fill that need."
Social Justice Coalition President and GAHT PPIL patient Samuel Richardson, who identifies as a queer non-binary transgender man, is one of the people that have been helped due to the expansion of health centers statewide.
"I knew about GAHT before it came to the Peoria Planned Parenthood health center, but thought it was only something that would ever be offered in a big urban area like Chicago or St. Louis," said Richardson.
After becoming pregnant with his daughter, Richardson said he realized he was not meant to have a female body and that was solidified during his postpartum experience. When Richardson's daughter was three months old he contacted Peoria Planned Parenthood and that is where he met Garber.
"Dana changed my life," said Richardson. "I finally felt comfortable. PPIL was the first and only place I looked to for my transition. Being able to access GAHT where I live was literally lifesaving. My gender bothered me so much that I probably would not be here today. Traveling to Chicago for medical care was not an option. Neither was trying to find an endocrinologist who offered GAHT. I have educated more medical professionals about being transgender than they have educated me."
Richardson said that PPIL is a great place for GAHT because they understand transgender care. This includes respecting pronouns and people's chosen names. He added that every friend who has reached out to him about their own gender identity he points them toward PPIL.
One of the ways PPIL helps as many transgender patients as possible get access to GAHT is by being an Illinois Medicaid credentialed provider. Garber said that in addition to Medicaid covering GAHT and other gender-affirming services and PrEP and PEP, as of this past Jan. 1, 2020 they also cover gender-affirming surgery.
Garber added that PPIL's Community Engagement department participates in many support coalitions statewide including medical and mental health providers, PrEP/PEP and HIV testing and treatment providers, LGBTQ support groups and agencies, college LGBTQ student alliances and Generation Action chapters at a number of Illinois colleges.
When asked what message Garber, who is also receiving GAHT patient care via PPIL, wants to convey about working for PPIL she said it is "very personally rewarding for me. This is the most affirming workplace I have ever experienced. As a patient, I know I will be treated with respect and dignity. They will work with me to achieve my goals and my identity will be affirmed and honored."
Garber also calls on people to not just be an LGBTQ ally, they should be an advocate.
For those who want to explore GAHT, Garber said they must call PPIL's booking center at 877-200-7745. PPIL does these initial calls so no personal questions have to be asked when the patient arrives at the health center for their appointment.
See plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-illinois/patient-resources/gender-affirming-hormone-therapy .