Dr. Alex Barrerra, DDS
LGBTQ+ health equity is on the rise, but it’s time for dentistry to catch up…
By now, we understand that LGBTQ+ individuals face unique challenges that can make seeking out healthcare a little daunting. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities has identified the LGBTQ community as a “health disparity population,” due primarily to lowered access to health care. Unfortunately, some of this comes down to LGBTQ+ patients avoiding medical treatment due to past discrimination and fear of stigma. When LGBTQ people belong to other marginalized groups, such as being a person of color or having a disability, it becomes more and more difficult to find accessible, non-biased care.
In dentistry, LGBTQ+ patients are also affected in unique ways. Factors affecting LGBTQ+ access to dental care include things like discrimination, stigma, fear, and anxiety— but more significantly, it is the lack of LGBTQ+ education in dental schools that make it difficult for dental providers to treat these patients with the empathy and compassion they deserve.
What makes LGBTQ+ care in dentistry unique?
- Good oral health care may be arguably even more important in the LGBTQ+ community, as we face comorbidities that may put us at a higher risk for oral diseases, such as smoking, alcohol/drug use, dental phobia, anxiety, and depression.
- Dentistry has traditionally been a very conservative profession, leading to a lack of diversity with practicing dentists today. Along with this, LGBTQ+ related topics are often excluded in the dental school curriculum. This means that raising awareness and education among practicing dentists is pivotal so that we can have better health outcomes for queer individuals.
- It is important that patients are open and honest about their medical history with their health care providers so that they are safely cared for. This means that queer people need to find a dental home that is affirming and supportive of their sexual and gender identities.
- Current research shows that there are some oral health correlations in patients undergoing hormone therapies. For example, trans men have an increased susceptibility to plaque, gingivitis, and periodontitis while also having a high rate of xerostomia (dry mouth). With trans women, estrogen may affect TMJ issues.
How can queer people take better care of their oral health?
- It’s important to have a “dental home” or a dental office where you regularly get check-ups and can get any treatment done. It’s important to find a dental office where you truly feel comfortable. Take your time researching dental offices near you and look for a practice that can provide you with compassionate and appropriate care. It’s best to have a dental home even if you are not currently experiencing any dental problems or pain; prevention is key!
- If you are uninsured or struggling financially, there are options to still receive affordable care! If you are in a major city, look up the local dental school. Dental school clinics provide excellent care as you usually have not only a student, but one or more dental professors treating you. Other options include local county clinics or federally qualified health centers. Many of these options have sliding scale payment plans.
- Build a proper oral hygiene routine. This includes brushing 2 times per day for 2 minutes each time and flossing at least 1 time each day. Things like tongue scrapers and mouth rinses are usually not necessary but are a great way to freshen breath and combat gum disease.
Moving forward together…
The experience of being a queer dentist and working with many patients that have faced discrimination has inspired the creation of the Houston Equality Dental Network (HEDN), an organized dentistry group specifically for LGBTQ dental professionals and patients.
The purpose of our organization is to advance equality for queer dental professionals in their work and learning environments, while also fostering awareness and research in oral health disparities in this population.
The past 2 years, HEDN has been able to provide free continuing education courses for dental professionals on topics unique to the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, our platform has allowed us to be vocal and present on LGBTQ+ care to various dental schools and community organizations around the country. Our organization has given back to the local queer community by providing oral health information sessions to LGBTQ+ groups around Houston and provided free virtual dental consultations to help LGBTQ+ individuals gain access to dental care.
My proudest moment with HEDN however, has been showing LGBTQ+ dental students and prospective students that dentistry can be a profession where they can be happy, safe, and be true to themselves. Personally, my biggest hesitation before starting dental school was whether I would be out of the closet or not. I was terrified that my sexuality would affect my success in my education because of the conservative history of our profession. To an extent, I feel like I was not able to perform my best while a student and avoided countless social events, leadership opportunities, and getting to know my professors due to the constant anxiety of being an LGBTQ+ individual. Through HEDN, I want to change that. I want every dental student to be in an environment free from fear of discrimination so that they can thrive and shine to their full potential.
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 training 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.
Additional resources for finding an affirming dentist:
Dr. Alex Barrera (he/him) is a queer and BIPOC dentist in Houston, Texas. He earned a BA in biology from Texas A&M International University and his DDS from the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston. He is passionate about and dedicated to improving health access and equity for underserved populations, especially for queer people of color. He’s also a yoga teacher!