As an LGBTQI lactation provider, I sometimes feel that I live in a parallel universe to those colleagues who are unaffected by, and largely unaware of, the kind of prejudice and discrimination LGBTQI people experience and how this affects our lives and our work.
Two days ago, on December 4, the state of Michigan passed the “Michigan religious freedom restoration act”. The passing of this bill means that lactation professionals, such as IBCLCs, in that State can now legally refuse to provide services to LGBTQI families. Many health professionals, lactation consultants, breastfeeding peer counsellors, and doulas, by their own accounts and documented in health research, already refuse services to LGBTQI patients and clients and legislation like gives them legal protection to do so. Refusal of health services or the provision of inadequate or sloppy services impacts LGBTQI people’s health and that of our families, and impacts the work environment that LGBTQI providers operate within (which I have written about in a recent article in the Journal of Human Lactation and spoke about at the 2014 Lactation Summit).
For LGBTQI lactation professionals the “Michigan religious freedom restoration act”, if not revoked, will also limit our ability to travel and work in that state, as we are limited in our travel and ability to work in many places of the world. For example, two important events for lactation professionals, the ILCA conference and the 2014 Lactation Summit were held this year in Arizona. In February, the state of Arizona passed a bill which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTQI people by refusing services in the name of religious freedom. While Arizona’s bill was hanging in the balance, lactation professionals planning to attend one or both of these events were holding our breaths to see what the outcome would be. The bill was vetoed because it would have allowed businesses and service providers the legal right to deny basic life needs. Had it become law, the LGBTQI attendees of this year’s ILCA conference or Lactation Summit would have risked the humiliation (and potential danger) of being refused entry to the hotel where the meetings were held, refused taxis, refused being served in restaurants and cafés, refused emergency medical care if required, along with the loss of work or education, loss of time and money.
Michigan and Arizona are not alone, many US states have passed similar legislation or have proposed religious freedom bills, and worldwide there are currently 79 countries where it is illegal to be gay, some with a death penalty, stoning, or flogging. Many countries restrict LGBTQI autonomy and do not guarantee basic human rights – this impacts our personal safety, our health, our families, our work, and where we can live. Living in Europe, I often travel to adjoining countries and even as far as the US to present my work as conference speaking is an important part of my professional life. One of the first things I do before accepting a speaking engagement in another country is to check their anti-gay laws and whether it is safe for me to travel there and to speak freely. Anti-gay and anti-LGBTQI sentiment and is increasing worldwide despite, or perhaps because of, an increase in social acceptance and legal rights.
In October I spoke at the European meeting of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine in Bucharest – an important moment for my career – yet I thought long and hard about attending as the world-renowned author Andrew Solomon had reported on his Facebook page that his speaking engagement at Bucharest’s Central University Library was cancelled due to the fact that he would talk about his gay identity. My talk did not touch on my sexual orientation nor gender, and the meeting was held in a private hotel not a State owned institution, but the same I did not feel entirely comfortable travelling to that country. My gay identity and my andogynous gender are part of myself and my work and are not separable.
Working in these conditions adds stress to our lives that is unwarrented. LGBTQI providers know that if we speak out, we risk compromising our careers and opening ourselves up to scrutiny and attack by those colleagues and clients who benefit from the legal protection offered by religious freedom legislation. Our allies also take risks by supporting us, and I greatly respect and appreciate those who do, as support from our colleagues and professional organisations is vital if we speak openly out about the discrimination experienced by LGBTQI lactation professionals and the families we serve – many, many LGBTQI lactation professionals do not feel safe to live openly their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and are therefore unable to or unwilling to speak out on these issues. Some LGBTQI providers, such as LGBTQI people of colour in the US at this present moment face more urgent issues that affect the immediate safety of themselves and their families, and the points raised here may only be a minor part of their difficulties.
I debated for a long time whether to write this post, as it is so hard to write about discrimination when it affects me directly and personally. Encouraged by supportive colleagues (thankyou!) I am posting this so that we do not have to suffer this humiliation and restriction to our personal freedom, our health and safety, and the freedom to practice our profession, alone and in silence.