The facts about lesbian health..

A recent feature article on irishhealth.com discussed the issue of health and gay men, specifically focusing on the Gay Men's Health Project in Dublin. A number of site members subsequently made contact asking for a similar article on health issues facing lesbians. So in researching this article, I looked for a lesbian equivalent of the Gay Men's Project, except there isn't one in Ireland. Instead there are numerous myths about health issues for lesbians, which continue to be propagated in Irish society; all lesbian women are butch, lesbians cannot catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, lesbians cannot develop cervical cancer.

The truth is of course that lesbians are not all butch (a popular and wildly incorrect stereotype), the transmission of an STI from one woman to another most definitely can (and does) happen and lesbians can develop cervical cancer, despite the fact that they may never have had penetrative sexual intercourse with a man.

Lack of information

Within the area of sexual health, there appears to be a lack of knowledge about many different issues, not only amongst lesbians themselves, but also amongst the health professionals that may be treating them. This is not helped by a serious lack of research in many areas.

Women having sex with other women can catch a number of STIs, including HIV/AIDS, genital warts, chlamydia, pubic lice and trichomoniasis, to name but a few. However research into some of these STIs in relation to lesbians has been low. For example, in the case of HIV/AIDS, many believe a lesbian cannot catch the virus, however there have been cases reported in medical literature of woman-to-woman transmission. Likely sources of transmission include vaginal discharge and menstrual blood. However none of these methods of transmission have been studied yet.

Cervical cancer

There also appears to be a lack of consensus on the issue of cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix or neck of the womb). Cervical cancer is almost certainly the result of some process that occurs during sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Over the years, different components of the male ejaculate have been implicated. Nowadays it appears to be associated with some strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is also the virus that causes genital warts.

However it is a misconception that lesbians cannot develop cervical cancer and therefore do not need smear tests. Apart from the fact that a lesbian may have previously had sex with a man, they may be at risk for another reason that is unrelated to sexual activity. For example, being a smoker increases a woman's chances of developing this type of cancer, as does having a history of cancer of the vagina or uterus.

It should also be noted that lesbians may be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, as they are less likely to have children by the age of 30, if at all.

College

It is clear therefore that as well as the need for more research, there needs to be greater promotion of health issues, such as sexual health and cancer screening, aimed directly at lesbians. One of the best places to do this in is college, as this is a time when many people will choose to come out, according to Iain Gill, LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) Rights Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

"When you go to university, it may be the first opportunity you have to come out. It can be a lot easier because for example, you might be living away from home for the first time", he explained to irishhealth.com.

According to Mr Gill, there are around 23 LGB societies on campuses throughout the country, which is the highest number yet. However despite this, many students face problems such as homophobia on college campus and discrimination from staff, tutors and other students.

He also pointed out that the rate of coming out in college is greater among gay men than lesbian women. He added that while coming out is undoubtedly a difficult thing for anyone to do, whether male or female, 'there are more problems for women coming out'.

"In my experience, there are more barriers for women coming out compared to men. This is due to the way society is structured, it is more patriarchal. Women are under-represented on so many levels in general society, so for lesbians, due to their sexuality, they have an added barrier of social exclusion to overcome", he said.

"There also appears to be an imbalance in the gay community - lesbians are outnumbered by gay and bisexual men. If you take for example an LGB club/pub, unless these are specifically themed for women, they are frequented by gay men and to a large extent these days, straight women. For lesbian (and bisexual women), this can be quite frustrating and intimidating".

Isolation and mental health

For this reason, the issue of mental health is a very pertinent one, with many lesbians, whether they have come out or not, feeling extremely isolated. This view is echoed by Rita Wild, a project co-ordinator with L.Inc (Lesbians in Cork).

"It is definitely easier for men to come out - the root of this is in sexism. Many things in Ireland are easier for men because it is a patriarchal society. Men generally have more access to resources, it is easier for them to live independently and they may not have as many familial commitments as women, for example if children are involved", Ms Wild explained.

This can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety or eating disorders, she said.

When a lesbian does come out, those around her will then often assume she is either a 'bean sprouting, sandal wearing, hippy chick or butch'. However to a heterosexual person, while this may not seem particularly offensive, it is a form of homophobia, Ms Wild insisted.

"We are all homophobic in this country because the socialisation we receive here is homophobic. This is partly due to the fact that for so long, Ireland was dominated by the Catholic Church, which demonised homosexuality. These views can then pass from one generation to the next. And while making a stereotype may not appear negative to a heterosexual person, it is putting people in boxes in order to make straight people feel comfortable", she said.

L.inc is a resource centre, which offers information and support to lesbians in a number of ways, for example through group meetings and workshops.

Coming out

A workgroup was recently established for women in the 17-23 age group, covering topics such as coming out, homophobia, alcohol and reproduction. A 'happy health' workgroup is also due to start in the coming months, which will cover such topics as sexual health, ageing and the menopause, mental health and stress management.

Current groups meanwhile include a young lesbians group, an older lesbians group and a lesbian parents group.

This particular group is made up of a wide range of people, from women who had children while in a relationship with a man, to women who had children following sperm donation. There is currently no State-sanctioned way for lesbians to have children, therefore if a lesbian wishes to have a child using a sperm donor, she has to travel to England.

A single lesbian woman can in theory adopt a child, however with few babies being put up for adoption in Ireland every year, they are usually at the bottom of the list of prospective parents. A lesbian couple cannot adopt a child because marriage between two people of the same sex is not recognised in this country.

Marriage

According to Ms Wild, this is a serious issue because while lesbians (or gays and bisexuals) may not want to be married necessarily, there are currently no partnership rights for homosexual people in this country, resulting in many repercussions.

For example, take a lesbian couple who have a child, whether as the result of sperm donation or a past relationship. If something happened to the child and he/she needed surgery, the 'non-biological' parent would not be able to give consent to such treatment, even if the 'biological' parent could not be contacted.

There are also the financial implications of partnership rights, such as tax credits, pensions, etc. A gay couple could be living together for years, but if one dies, the other has no legal entitlement to the deceased person's pension.

However Ms Wild is confident that it is 'only a matter of time' before partnership rights for homosexual people are introduced in Ireland.

"Senator David Norris is a brilliant campaigner on this issue and we will hopefully see these rights within the next five to 10 years", she said.

Contact information:

For more information, contact:

-L.Inc at 021 480 8600.

-Union of Students in Ireland at 01 - 435 3400 or email lgb@usi.ie.

-Gay Switchboard Dublin at 01 - 872 1055 (Sunday to Friday 8pm to 10pm and Saturday 3.30pm to 6pm).

-Lesbian Line Dublin at 01 - 872 9911 (Thursday 7pm to 9pm).

-Lesbian Line Belfast at 028 9023 8668.


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