How To Talk To Your Doctor About Your Sexuality

Trigger warning: This article mentions suicide and substance misuse.

You've probably planned on coming out about your sexuality to essential family members like your mom and dad. But have you ever thought about the importance of coming out to your doctor? 

An open and honest relationship with your doctor is essential to getting care. This is especially true since there are specific needs that you might have as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As health family medicine physician Rita Lahlou, MD, MPH, told UNC Health Talk, "It's important for people who identify with historically marginalized communities to find a primary care provider who will be supporting, affirming and understanding of them."

With that said, the thought of a discussion about your health can be downright nerve-wracking. Whether you're seeing a new doctor or talking with the doctor you've been seeing for years, here are a few tips and strategies to ensure that all your healthcare needs are met for your sexual health.

Set the tone about discussing your sexuality

A person's sex life and sexual preferences come into play when it comes to their overall care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.2 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with HIV, 63% of whom are gay or bisexual men. Additionally, young LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide due to how they are treated, per The Trevor Project.

And it's not an area that many general practitioners might feel comfortable asking about. Research published in Sexual Medicine examined healthcare specialists' avoidance of sex and sexuality. It stated that many specialists think that asking their patients about their sex life and sexuality could cause embarrassment, so it's not something that might come up. However, creating the appropriate framework of trust and empathy between your doctor and you can make this discussion easier. Bringing the topic to the table first lets your provider know it's not a taboo area to talk about.

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Look for an LGBTQ-friendly provider

Since your sexuality is a crucial area of your life and who you are, having a physician or specialist who understands how to support the LGBTQ+ community can make talking about your sexuality easier. Look for a provider with an LGBTQ+ designation. According to Henry Ford, doctors with this designation complete additional clinical training for patients within this community, making them more likely to be knowledgeable in documenting sexual orientation and understanding the specific needs.

Finding an LGBTQ+-friendly provider might take some looking around. Paula Neira, Program Director of LGBTQ+ Equity and Education, told Johns Hopkins Medicine that there are databases by groups such as GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, but they aren't exactly comprehensive. Thus, setting an appointment with a healthcare provider might require asking about their experience caring for LGBTQ+ patients. You can also ask others in the community to find a doctor they trust or have had a positive experience with.

Neira adds that not being open and honest with your provider could lead to missed screens, like those for cancer, especially for transgender individuals. Johns Hopkins Medicine also pointed out that seven out of ten LGBTQ+ members have received negative care, and connecting with a healthcare specialist competent in this field can alleviate that.

Bring your partner to the appointment

It's easier to talk about your sexuality when you have a loving person supporting you. Consider bringing your partner with you to discuss this with your provider. Not only can they hold your hand, but they might also be able to help you make sure you have all your bases covered.

Bringing your partner with you and introducing them to your doctor can quickly clarify your sexuality and cue your healthcare provider that it's okay to broach the subject of your sexual orientation. According to family medicine physician Beth Careyva, MD, "By providing this information, we can make sure to offer preventative care screenings, as well as provide counseling on sexual health, lifestyle changes, and same-sex family planning" (via Lehigh Valley Health Network).

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion notes that having a support person during the visits can help ensure you keep track of your specialist's advice and ask questions when something isn't clearly explained.

Use techniques to calm nervousness

The Center for American Progress points out that discrimination in the healthcare setting for the LGBTQ+ community leads to delays and access to needed medical care. It can affect not only patients, but their parents as well. This is especially true for those trying to find care for their transgender children. Thus, it's not surprising that this topic might be uncomfortable for some to discuss with their doctor, leading to nervousness. 

Fortunately, there are several techniques to calm the nerves before talking to your doctor about your sexuality. One of the best calming methods is focusing on breathing (via NHS). Get yourself in a comfortable position and let your breath flow. Focus on nothing but the movement of your chest and the refreshing air coming into your lungs for a steady five-count. Keep repeating until the doctor comes in so that you can talk to them with a clear, relaxed mind.

The Baton Rouge Clinic AMC states that it can be helpful to close your eyes and count to ten as you wait for your healthcare provider to enter the room. You can also try counting to 20 backward. Other calming techniques include chewing gum, smelling lavender, and listening to calming music. Once the doctor comes in, you can bring up your sexuality as part of your casual health conversation.

Be straightforward and honest

It may be hard to be bold, but when it comes to your health, it's not a time to be shy. Bring your sexuality to the table immediately. For example, introduce yourself to a new doctor with your name, preferred pronouns, and sexuality. Being matter-of-fact with your healthcare professional establishes honesty. With a current specialist, bring it up by saying, "I have a personal question..." states the National Institute on Aging.

Johns Hopkins Medicine also notes that you should set an agenda when talking to your doctor. It doesn't have to be a long, intricate list, but outlining your sexuality and issues you would like to talk about will ensure that all your needs are met. According to Megan Moran-Sands, DO, a Geisinger pediatrician, "Your doctor and any healthcare professional you interact with will keep your information private." Knowing this can help you not to feel so apprehensive.

And remember, your doctor wants honesty. Debra Roter, Dr.P.H., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted, "It's important to share things about your lifestyle, social obligations and relationships at home and at work. Sometimes patients are fearful that the doctor isn't interested or that it isn't relevant." But having this information gives them a better understanding of your overall health.

Use questions as your guide

If you've had a bad experience with a different healthcare provider regarding the topic of sexuality, you might be even more apprehensive about talking about it openly. In that case, using questions as your guide might be better. Giving your current provider hints about what you need to discuss allows them to bring the subject up and save you embarrassment.

For example, you might start off your conversation with your provider by discussing their knowledge of LGBTQ+ patients. During your initial interview with a new doctor, you might ask about their patient experience with sexuality and LGBTQ+ patients. Ask about their experience with transgender issues. LCMC Health states that it sets a tone with your provider, allowing them to draw the conversation toward your sexuality in a respectful manner. As the National Institute on Aging notes, asking questions is key to building open communication with your doctor to better understand medical issues, tests, and medications that can affect your sexual life.

Don't put off talking about your sexuality

The World Health Organization says that your sexual health is essential not just to your personal well-being, but also to that of your loved ones. Don't overlook being committed to your sexual health with your doctor, since it can influence screenings, family counseling, testing, and more.

Understanding your sexual health also plays a vital role in sexually transmitted disease prevention, practicing safer sex, and your body image, states Healthline. In addition, it's a key area of mental and emotional health, particularly for members of the LGBTQ+ community who experience "discrimination or cultural homophobia." Per data presented by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sexual minorities such as the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to have substance misuse and mental health issues.

As Dr. Megan Moran-Sands notes (via Geisinger), "It's beneficial to share your sexual orientation with your doctor so you can get the most personalized care. You can be more open about your life and your choices, and you and your doctor can work together to create a plan for staying healthy." Don't wait to talk to your doctor about sexual health. Bring it to the discussion immediately to set the bar for all future appointments. 

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Tips for making the talk about sexuality easier

Sexuality and sexual health should not be taboo topics, and are nothing to feel ashamed about. Remember that no matter what, your doctor is there to help. To make things a bit easier during your appointment, Willis-Knighton Health System suggests writing down the items you want to discuss on a phone or piece of paper to avoid forgetting what you want to say in case you suddenly feel uneasy. 

Since talking about sexual health can be difficult face-to-face, you might also want to take advantage of telehealth consultations to discuss these issues. It might be easier for you to talk about sexual orientation, sexual problems, and gender in the comfort of your own home. Your provider can ask questions to get the necessary tests or medications (via the International Society for Sexual Medicine). Telehealth might also be the best way to connect with a doctor that is LGBTQ+-friendly.

Lastly, it helps to give your doctor a heads-up. For example, you can tell your healthcare provider during your initial appointment that you would like to speak to them about sexuality. You can also let them know that you're nervous. This way, they can have questions ready to help you overcome your negative feelings.