Tagged Homosexuality and Bisexuality

‘How Did You Qualify?’ For the Young and Vaccinated, Rude Questions and Raised Eyebrows

Medical privacy has become the latest casualty of vaccination efforts, as friends, co-workers and even total strangers ask intrusive questions about personal health conditions.

Peter Gamlen

When Helena Jenkins, 23, recently asked to leave work early for a vaccination appointment, her boss at a Nashville retail store was incredulous.

“Well how did you get that?” he asked.

Ms. Jenkins was embarrassed, but answered truthfully. “Um, my weight,” she stammered, referring to the fact that, in Tennessee, a body mass index of 30 qualified her for vaccination in early March. “I had a moment of ‘ugh,’” she said later. “It made me so uncomfortable, but it didn’t click until afterward that I definitely didn’t have to answer that.”

As public health officials push to get more at-risk people vaccinated, many of the newly qualified are discovering an unwelcome side effect of vaccination: Intrusive questions about their personal health.

The majority of states now have expanded vaccine eligibility to include people with underlying health conditions that put them at risk for complications from Covid-19, such as high blood pressure, a compromised immune system or obesity. As a result, the demographics of the vaccine waiting lines have shifted from mostly older people and now include many seemingly healthy people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Young vaccine recipients say their friends and co-workers are intensely curious about the appointment process, and as a result, often ignore boundaries about personal health that they never would have crossed in the past. Some of them ask directly: “What health problem allowed you to qualify?”

When Amy Coody, 43, a mental health worker in Montgomery, Ala., told her friends and colleagues she had a vaccine appointment, she was shocked when it felt like people were judging her and assuming she had taken another person’s spot in line. Ms. Coody knows that she looks young and healthy, but she qualifies for two reasons — her work takes her into hospital settings, and she also has an underlying health condition that puts her at high risk.

“The hostility was definitely there,” she said. “They’d be like, ‘Wait, how did you get an appointment?’ I wasn’t prepared for that kind of reaction. It took me off guard so I eventually stopped telling people I planned to get the vaccine.”

Vaccine supply issues resulted in the cancellation of two of her appointments, and the shaming even made her debate rescheduling. “I would never want to step in front of somebody who needed it,” said Ms. Coody. “Then I realized, I do need it. There are a lot of patients in hospitals waiting for care. I thought, it’s about them. It’s not about me and my shame or anybody else who doesn’t understand the situation.”

Getting policed about a hidden health issue isn’t new to Ms. Coody, who has a condition called dysautonomia, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system that can cause her to suddenly pass out. She said the vaccine shaming she has experienced was similar to when she’s been confronted after parking in a handicapped space, even though she has a tag that allows her to park there.

“People come up to me and say, ‘You’re young and you obviously don’t have an illness so why are you taking a handicap spot?’” Ms. Coody said. “Even though it’s none of their business, I feel the need to defend myself. If more people realized there are invisible illnesses out there, maybe they might be a little more respectful about it.”

Even total strangers waiting in vaccine lines have felt justified in interrogating someone who looks young and healthy. Those on the receiving end of the questions say the implication is that they must have cheated and jumped the line.

Joanna Hua, 23 and a graduate student at Georgetown University, was standing in line for her second dose recently when an older woman she’d never met confronted her. “She looked at me and said, ‘You look very young to be getting the vaccine,’” Ms. Hua recounted. “She asked me, ‘How did you end up being able to qualify for one?’”

Ms. Hua said she was taken aback by the question. She told the woman truthfully that she qualified because she worked in a grocery store, but she didn’t mention that she also qualified based on her weight. She said another young woman in line near her also nervously explained her reasons for qualifying.

“I felt an instinctive need to justify myself,” said Ms. Hua. “It felt almost accusatory and invasive to ask about it. I think there is some sort of idea going around that people are just taking advantage and trying to get a vaccine whenever possible. I don’t doubt that some people do that. But to have a stranger come up and ask you?”

Tanmoy Lala Das, a medical and doctoral student in New York City, has been helping with vaccination efforts in Manhattan, giving shots to patients and helping as a patient navigator. He said overall the experience at vaccination centers has been upbeat, and everyone is collegial and happy to be there. But he has, on occasion, heard people asking others about personal health issues while waiting in line for their shots.

“I’ve overheard people ask, ‘So what brings you in today?’” Mr. Das said. “The less stigmatized conditions people are open to talking about. They’d laugh and say, “Oh, you know, diabetes.’ I think the ones who are more sensitive, they say, ‘Oh, I just got a spot.’”

It doesn’t help that many people know someone who has jumped the line by claiming to be a teacher or a smoker or lying about a health condition. In New York a fitness instructor got vaccinated by claiming to be an educator, and in Florida two women even “dressed up as grannies” to get the vaccine.

“I think in New York, people are trying to figure out these dynamics of are you getting the dose because it was left over, or a condition that qualifies you or did you lie about something,” said Mr. Das. “The honest reality is I know people who have cut the line and lied about things — 29-year-old people who have gotten vaccines who don’t have pre-existing conditions. But I think most people are not lying. The goal is to vaccinate everyone.”

Rhonda Wolfson, who lives in Toronto, said that in places where the vaccination process still is age-restricted, it has created a different privacy problem, casting light on the fact that a person is above a certain age. Ms. Wolfson qualified for a pilot vaccination program in Ontario for people aged 60 to 64, and she realized that talking about her vaccination would reveal her as a sexagenarian to people who thought she was younger.

“I have one friend in her 40s, and she knows I’m older, but she doesn’t know my exact age,” said Ms. Wolfson. “She’s never asked, and I’ve never offered. I spoke to her last week and in my excitement I mentioned, ‘OMG, I got vaccinated.’ I could almost hear her pause, ‘Oh, you’re that age.’”

In some circles, the stigma of early vaccination is even more concerning because it could dissuade at-risk people from getting the shot. In the gay community, for instance, a young person who gets vaccinated in the early group might be seen to be immunocompromised.

“In the gay community there is this assumption that if you are getting the vaccine right now you must be secretly H.I.V. positive,” said Mr. Das, who is gay. “It has become an assumption in the community that if you’re a gay and you post a picture of the vaccine card, you’re positive and haven’t told us. I always talk to my friends and tell them, ‘Don’t assume things.’”

Mr. Das said he is hopeful that any stigma or medical privacy issues associated with early vaccination will disappear once vaccine appointments are open to everyone. President Biden has urged all states to expand medical eligibility to the general population by May 1, and many states, including Alaska, Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi, have already made the change.

“The sooner we get to vaccinating everyone, I think this question of ‘Oh, what qualified you?’ will stop,” Mr. Das said. “Once that goes away hopefully these barriers will break down, and people won’t keep asking these very personal questions.”

Some LGBTQ People Are Saying 'No Thanks' to the Covid Vaccine

L.G.B.T.Q. People Face Increased Risks From Covid, but Many Don’t Want the Vaccine

Evidence suggests that some sexual and gender minorities — especially people of color — are hesitant to get vaccinated due to mistrust of the medical establishment.

Credit…Derek Abella
Christina Caron

  • March 5, 2021Updated 3:53 p.m. ET

At her last doctor’s appointment, Erica Tyler, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., joked that she didn’t want to get vaccinated for Covid-19 “because another foot might grow out of my forehead. And I’m not ready for that.”

Ms. Tyler, 68, a cancer survivor who has diabetes and high blood pressure, lost her wife to a heart attack nearly a year ago and has been staying home throughout the pandemic to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus. But when the vaccine became available, she did not rejoice.

“I was resistant,” Ms. Tyler said. She described feeling unsettled by the push to vaccinate minorities, especially given how Black people have been underserved or mistreated by the medical establishment in the past.

“I felt that they were trying to storm people who they wanted to eliminate out of society,” she said, namely “the elderly and the Black people.”

Research has shown that sexual and gender minorities, and especially people of color, are more vulnerable to becoming infected with the coronavirus and also more likely to have underlying conditions that could make them severely ill if they were to contract Covid-19. But many of the very people who are most at risk within these communities are also hesitant to take the vaccine, according to a recent study and interviews with health care workers as well as people of color who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

“There’s an overarching mistrust around vaccination,” said Anthony Fortenberry, the chief nursing officer of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides medical care to L.G.B.T.Q. people in New York City. “They’re not sure if they want to get it.”

Each of the three Covid vaccines currently available in the United States has been shown to be remarkably good at preventing serious illness and death. At Callen-Lorde, Mr. Fortenberry said he has counseled patients about the efficacy of the vaccine, eventually easing their fears.

“They are not quick conversations,” he said. “They are addressing someone’s personal experiences and their history of discrimination.”

But not everyone has a health care provider with whom they feel comfortable sharing their concerns.

“I worry that without those conversations happening, people will continue to not get vaccinated,” he said.

So far about 54 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and of those nearly 28 million have been fully vaccinated. At Callen-Lorde and other medical centers that treat many L.G.B.T.Q. patients, health care workers say they have seen a higher demand for the vaccine among white patients compared to patients of color.

L.G.B.T. people of color were twice as likely as white non-L.G.B.T. people to test positive for Covid-19, according to a Williams Institute study published in February. Even though Black people are more at risk for contracting the disease, concerns about the vaccine are especially prevalent among this population, experts say. In a study published this month in the journal Vaccines, 1,350 men and transgender women who predominantly identified as gay or bisexual reported how likely they would be to get a Covid‐19 vaccine. The Black participants expressed significantly more vaccine hesitancy than their white peers, the study found.

Health care workers are encountering the same resistance in their patients. “Some people just literally said, ‘Well, no — Trump was involved in getting this vaccine going so I’m not going to get the vaccine,’” said Jill Crank, a nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in Baltimore.

Studies show that hesitancy about the Covid vaccine occurs across all demographic groups, including those in the medical profession. About three in 10 health care workers are hesitant about getting the vaccine, according to a survey published in December by K.F.F. (previously the Kaiser Family Foundation) compared to about a quarter of the general population.

Dezjorn Gauthier, 29, a Black transgender man who lives about 20 minutes from Milwaukee, said that although he is currently eligible to get the vaccine, he doesn’t want it.

“Right now it’s a no-go,” said Mr. Gauthier, a model and business owner who has Covid-19 antibodies because he contracted the coronavirus last year. The vaccine’s development moved “so rapidly and so quickly, it just has me a little bit hesitant,” he said, adding that he’s also unsure about the vaccine’s ingredients. “There’s a fear in the community.”

For members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and especially people of color, the hesitancy stems, in part, from pre-existing mistrust in the medical establishment, the experts said.

The infamous Tuskegee study, which took place from 1932 to 1972, is one of the most egregious examples of racial discrimination in health care. The researchers recruited African-American men, some of whom were infected with syphilis, to observe the course of the disease. But the researchers did not disclose what they were studying or give the participants proper treatment, even as the men suffered and experienced severe health problems.

The racial bias still found in medical care as well as the modern-day discrimination faced by sexual and gender minorities adds an additional burden.

“The fear of being rejected is already there,” Ms. Crank said. “They may have already been rejected by their families, friends, co-workers — so it can cause a deep depression and lack of trust in anyone, including health care workers.”

There are additional, different concerns about the vaccine among transgender people, advocates say, especially those who have received silicone injections or hormone replacement therapy.

“How does that affect somebody who has been on estrogen for the last 20 years?” asked Maria Roman-Taylorson, a transgender person and the vice president and chief operations officer of the TransLatin@ Coalition, a nonprofit agency that provides social services to transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex people in Los Angeles. “There’s no data at all.”

Dr. Kenneth Mayer, the medical research director at Fenway Health, a community health center in Boston where half of the patients identify as L.G.B.T.Q., said there’s no reason to believe that hormones or silicone would interact with the vaccine.

“There’s not something intrinsic about being transgender that would make somebody more likely to respond poorly to the vaccine or have more side effects,” said Dr. Mayer, whose institution has enrolled over 200 participants in the largest, most recent AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial.

Ms. Roman-Taylorson said she was initially hesitant to get vaccinated, but eventually decided to do it because she knew she needed to stay healthy to lead her agency.

“I felt the benefit outweighed the risk,” she said. But, she added, “there’s some folks even within our organization who are not willing to take it because they don’t trust the process. They don’t trust how it’s been developed.”

Although the vaccine was developed and manufactured quickly, “the safety steps were definitely not cut,” Dr. Mayer said, citing the independent data safety monitoring board that examines the data and the Food and Drug Administration’s stringent vetting process.

“I really think this is an example of science going right,” he added.

However, Dr. Mayer and others say there is a dearth of data about the L.G.B.T.Q. population. Representatives from both Pfizer and AstraZeneca said that they have not asked vaccine study participants to report their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Johnson & Johnson and Moderna did not immediately respond to emails asking about the demographic information they collect.) In addition, these categories are not included on the C.D.C.’s Covid-19 case report form, and only a handful of states and the District of Columbia have been working to collect such data when testing for Covid-19.

Public health experts say vaccination is safe and that there are a number of reasons to believe that if sexual and gender minorities don’t get vaccinated, they are more at risk of contracting Covid and becoming severely ill than the general population.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report concluding that gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the United States had higher rates of self-reported underlying conditions like cancer, heart disease and obesity than heterosexual people and are also more likely to be smokers. These conditions put adults at increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19, the report said. The C.D.C. says that people with these types of conditions should receive the vaccine earlier than the general population.

In addition, a recent study from New York State found that Covid patients with H.I.V. had higher rates of severe disease requiring hospitalization than those without an H.I.V. diagnosis. Men who have sex with men have the most new H.I.V. diagnoses in the United States, federal data shows.

Socioeconomic status and geographic location can create additional health vulnerabilities, said Sean Cahill, director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, a branch of Fenway Health that does policy analysis, conducts research and offers educational training around the world.

According to a Human Rights Campaign Foundation analysis, L.G.B.T.Q. people are twice as likely to work in frontline professions like food service and retail as non-L.G.B.T.Q. people, which can raise the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Many sexual and gender minorities live in urban areas, where physical distancing measures are harder to maintain, Dr. Cahill said.

Even those who can socially distance harbor skepticism about the need to vaccinate.

“My girlfriend and I live a very secluded life but wear masks and protection everywhere we go,” said Rayshawn Stallings, 30, a transgender Black man who lives in Pensacola, Fla. “No one enters our home and we have no contact with anyone other than each other. So why would we need to get the vaccine?”

As for Ms. Tyler, in Brooklyn, after speaking with seven of her friends who had taken the vaccine, none of whom had troubling side effects, she changed her mind and decided to get vaccinated. She received her first dose in February and is scheduled to get the second in mid-March.

“I did not want to cut short my living by having to hide in my house,” she said. “So I took a leap of faith.”

Some L.G.B.T.Q. People Are Saying 'No Thanks' to the Covid Vaccine

L.G.B.T.Q. People Face Increased Risks From Covid, but Many Don’t Want the Vaccine

Evidence suggests that some sexual and gender minorities — especially people of color — are hesitant to get vaccinated due to mistrust of the medical establishment.

Credit…Derek Abella
Christina Caron

  • March 5, 2021, 3:34 p.m. ET

At her last doctor’s appointment, Erica Tyler, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., joked that she didn’t want to get vaccinated for Covid-19 “because another foot might grow out of my forehead. And I’m not ready for that.”

Ms. Tyler, 68, a cancer survivor who has diabetes and high blood pressure, lost her wife to a heart attack nearly a year ago and has been staying home throughout the pandemic to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus. But when the vaccine became available, she did not rejoice.

“I was resistant,” Ms. Tyler said. She described feeling unsettled by the push to vaccinate minorities, especially given how Black people have been underserved or mistreated by the medical establishment in the past.

“I felt that they were trying to storm people who they wanted to eliminate out of society,” she said, namely “the elderly and the Black people.”

Research has shown that sexual and gender minorities, and especially people of color, are more vulnerable to becoming infected with the coronavirus and also more likely to have underlying conditions that could make them severely ill if they were to contract Covid-19. But many of the very people who are most at risk within these communities are also hesitant to take the vaccine, according to a recent study and interviews with health care workers as well as people of color who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

“There’s an overarching mistrust around vaccination,” said Anthony Fortenberry, the chief nursing officer of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides medical care to L.G.B.T.Q. people in New York City. “They’re not sure if they want to get it.”

Each of the three Covid vaccines currently available in the United States has been shown to be remarkably good at preventing serious illness and death. At Callen-Lorde, Mr. Fortenberry said he has counseled patients about the efficacy of the vaccine, eventually easing their fears.

“They are not quick conversations,” he said. “They are addressing someone’s personal experiences and their history of discrimination.”

But not everyone has a health care provider with whom they feel comfortable sharing their concerns.

“I worry that without those conversations happening, people will continue to not get vaccinated,” he said.

So far about 54 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and of those nearly 28 million have been fully vaccinated. At Callen-Lorde and other medical centers that treat many L.G.B.T.Q. patients, health care workers say they have seen a higher demand for the vaccine among white patients compared to patients of color.

L.G.B.T. people of color were twice as likely as white non-L.G.B.T. people to test positive for Covid-19, according to a Williams Institute study published in February. Even though Black people are more at risk for contracting the disease, concerns about the vaccine are especially prevalent among this population, experts say. In a study published this month in the journal Vaccines, 1,350 men and transgender women who predominantly identified as gay or bisexual reported how likely they would be to get a Covid‐19 vaccine. The Black participants expressed significantly more vaccine hesitancy than their white peers, the study found.

Heath care workers are encountering the same resistance in their patients. “Some people just literally said, ‘Well, no — Trump was involved in getting this vaccine going so I’m not going to get the vaccine,’” said Jill Crank, a nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in Baltimore.

Studies show that hesitancy about the Covid vaccine occurs across all demographic groups, including those in the medical profession. About three in 10 health care workers are hesitant about getting the vaccine, according to a survey published in December by K.F.F. (previously the Kaiser Family Foundation) compared to about a quarter of the general population.

Dezjorn Gauthier, 29, a Black transgender man who lives about 20 minutes from Milwaukee, said that although he is currently eligible to get the vaccine, he doesn’t want it.

“Right now it’s a no-go,” said Mr. Gauthier, a model and business owner who has Covid-19 antibodies because he contracted the coronavirus last year. The vaccine’s development moved “so rapidly and so quickly, it just has me a little bit hesitant,” he said, adding that he’s also unsure about the vaccine’s ingredients. “There’s a fear in the community.”

For members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and especially people of color, the hesitancy stems, in part, from pre-existing mistrust in the medical establishment, the experts said.

The infamous Tuskegee study, which took place from 1932 to 1972, is one of the most egregious examples of racial discrimination in health care. The researchers recruited African-American men, some of whom were infected with syphilis, to observe the course of the disease. But the researchers did not disclose what they were studying or give the participants proper treatment, even as the men suffered and experienced severe health problems.

The racial bias still found in medical care as well as the modern-day discrimination faced by sexual and gender minorities adds an additional burden.

“The fear of being rejected is already there,” Ms. Crank said. “They may have already been rejected by their families, friends, co-workers — so it can cause a deep depression and lack of trust in anyone, including health care workers.”

There are additional, different concerns about the vaccine among transgender people, advocates say, especially those who have received silicone injections or hormone replacement therapy.

“How does that affect somebody who has been on estrogen for the last 20 years?” asked Maria Roman-Taylorson, a transgender person and the vice president and chief operations officer of the TransLatin@ Coalition, a nonprofit agency that provides social services to transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex people in Los Angeles. “There’s no data at all.”

Dr. Kenneth Mayer, the medical research director at Fenway Health, a community health center in Boston where half of the patients identify as L.G.B.T.Q., said there’s no reason to believe that hormones or silicone would interact with the vaccine.

“There’s not something intrinsic about being transgender that would make somebody more likely to respond poorly to the vaccine or have more side effects,” said Dr. Mayer, whose institution has enrolled over 200 participants in the largest, most recent AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial.

Ms. Roman-Taylorson said she was initially hesitant to get vaccinated, but eventually decided to do it because she knew she needed to stay healthy to lead her agency.

“I felt the benefit outweighed the risk,” she said. But, she added, “there’s some folks even within our organization who are not willing to take it because they don’t trust the process. They don’t trust how it’s been developed.”

Although the vaccine was developed and manufactured quickly, “the safety steps were definitely not cut,” Dr. Mayer said, citing the independent data safety monitoring board that examines the data and the Food and Drug Administration’s stringent vetting process.

“I really think this is an example of science going right,” he added.

However, Dr. Mayer and others say there is a dearth of data about the L.G.B.T.Q. population. Representatives from both Pfizer and AstraZeneca said that they have not asked vaccine study participants to report their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Johnson & Johnson and Moderna did not immediately respond to emails asking about the demographic information they collect.) In addition, these categories are not included on the C.D.C.’s Covid-19 case report form, and only a handful of states and the District of Columbia have been working to collect such data when testing for Covid-19.

Public health experts say vaccination is safe and that there are a number of reasons to believe that if sexual and gender minorities don’t get vaccinated, they are more at risk of contracting Covid and becoming severely ill than the general population.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report concluding that gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the United States had higher rates of self-reported underlying conditions like cancer, heart disease and obesity than heterosexual people and are also more likely to be smokers. These conditions put adults at increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19, the report said. The C.D.C. says that people with these types of conditions should receive the vaccine earlier than the general population.

In addition, a recent study from New York State found that Covid patients with H.I.V. had higher rates of severe disease requiring hospitalization than those without an H.I.V. diagnosis. Men who have sex with men have the most new H.I.V. diagnoses in the United States, federal data shows.

Socioeconomic status and geographic location can create additional health vulnerabilities, said Sean Cahill, director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, a branch of Fenway Health that does policy analysis, conducts research and offers educational training around the world.

According to a Human Rights Campaign Foundation analysis, L.G.B.T.Q. people are twice as likely to work in frontline professions like food service and retail as non-L.G.B.T.Q. people, which can raise the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Many sexual and gender minorities live in urban areas, where physical distancing measures are harder to maintain, Dr. Cahill said.

Even those who can socially distance harbor skepticism about the need to vaccinate.

“My girlfriend and I live a very secluded life but wear masks and protection everywhere we go,” said Rayshawn Stallings, 30, a transgender Black man who lives in Pensacola, Fla. “No one enters our home and we have no contact with anyone other than each other. So why would we need to get the vaccine?”

As for Ms. Tyler, in Brooklyn, after speaking with seven of her friends who had taken the vaccine, none of whom had troubling side effects, she changed her mind and decided to get vaccinated. She received her first dose in February and is scheduled to get the second in mid-March.

“I did not want to cut short my living by having to hide in my house,” she said. “So I took a leap of faith.”

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

Ties

The Grizzly in the Purple Pants

My mom and stepdad wanted me to be more manly. In Cub Scouts, I just wanted to make the troop cupcakes.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Russell Lee spat a wad of snuff into a Planters peanuts can. We sat at a picnic table in his backyard, next to the railroad tracks. He jackhammered the ground with his right leg.

“Your mom’s having an affair,” said Russ, my mother’s husband.

“What’re you talking about?” I stared at his face — grayed muttonchops against skin bronzed from working under the Texas sun. Hummingbirds buzzed past us, sucking sugar water from the cherry-red feeder. I wanted to crush them.

Russ struggled against tears. “And she has AIDS. I have proof.”

His accusation rang false, but adults held secrets. Then 21, I had mine.

I had met Russell Lee even before my mom did. When I was 5, my uncle took me to visit one of his ailing relatives. In walked a brawny guy carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing purple pants. His thinning black hair was long and curly.

I wondered if he was a hippie. I’d seen ones on TV but never in real life.

When I was 6, my father, a suit-and-tie-wearing principal, descended into psychosis from abusing alcohol and speed. My mother, Nelda, a petite blonde schoolteacher, escaped with me when the death threats became body blows and a brandished .38.

Mom filed for divorce. The court forbade my father from future contact. We never saw him again.

Three months later, my mom’s sister arranged a blind date with one of her in-laws. He turned out to be Russell Lee, the man in the purple pants.

Mom loved that Russ had overcome life obstacles. One-quarter Cherokee, he was the last of 12 kids in an evangelical family of sharecroppers in the Ozarks. His mother died when he was 7. At 14, Russ quit middle school. He married four years later, had two kids, and by 45 had been divorced for a decade.

Within six weeks, he and my mom married. We moved from a middle-class life in conservative San Antonio to a duplex covered in psychedelic posters in liberal Austin.

My mother told me that Russ was my father now, so I should call him Dad.

I was a first grader and did as told but felt like a liar. Russell and I had met only four times.

He was an avid outdoorsman. I loved books and music. Scrawny, blond and asthmatic, I embodied my stepfather’s opposite, an albino salamander next to a grizzly bear.

Mom wanted me to be more like normal boys. She and her husband decided to remold me.

Cub Scouts was first. I kept offering to make the troop cupcakes.

They redoubled their efforts.

Every boy should know how to hunt and fish, Russ said. I wanted to play Scrabble, but he took me fishing. I threw the pole into the water. He had me shoot a rifle at a coffee can. I missed. “The only ones who’ll be safe are the deer,” he said, shaking his head.

Over time, the relationship with my stepdad became more contentious. Russ grew irate when I was elected student council president my junior year, saying the position interfered with my J.C. Penney janitor job.

He wanted me to quit, but I argued that the position might help me with college scholarships. Nelda and Russ had no money. I negotiated a compromise. “I won’t run again next year.”

But my plan was to run for senior class officer.

The next fall, we went to dinner at a relative’s house. Our hostess hugged me. “The ladies at church say you were elected class president. Congratulations!”

My stepdad smacked his fist against his thigh. “You promised me!” He didn’t look at me during the meal.

“You lied! Now you gotta quit,” he yelled, later in the car.

I startled myself when I said “no.”

He wanted me to move out, but my mother begged for me to be able to stay. I avoided him, going into their home just to sleep.

Each semester of high school, Russ insisted I take an auto repair class. I always stalled, promising “later.”

Every man should know how to work on his car, he said.

Before my last semester, Russell brought up the mechanics’ course again.

The only way I could fit it into my schedule was by dropping calculus, physics and AP English, so I refused.

“Don’t you disrespect—”

“I’m not meant for manual labor, like you!” I shouted. “I have a brain!”

“Get out.”

I stuffed my backpack.

“School ends soon. Let him stay until then,” mom pleaded.

Russ acquiesced, but skipped my graduation.

I moved out. When Russell and I saw each other at family events, we’d shake hands for show but keep our distance.

In my junior year of college, Russ was diagnosed with lung cancer. After he’d recovered from surgery, Nelda moved into a motel. My stepfather stayed at the house by the railroad tracks.

When my mom asked me to go see him, I agreed — as a favor to her.

It was during that visit he announced that my mother had AIDS, and that she had been cheating on him with the train engineers.

“When the horn blows, it’s a signal.” He believed my mother was meeting the railroad staff for trysts in a nearby abandoned shack.

“The tracks bend there,” I said, pointing. “The horns are warnings.”

He didn’t believe me. “There’s proof she has AIDS in the shack,” he said.

I crossed the tracks and went inside. “Nelda has AIDS” was spray-painted on a wall. But I recognized Russ’s handwriting. His capital “I” looked like a tadpole swallowing its tail.

When I called my mom, she cried. “He kept accusing me of grotesque sexual infidelity. I couldn’t take it.”

Because of our history of emotional distance, I wasn’t wounded by Russ’s break with reality. He’d been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was in my teens. But mom hid the depth of his mental illness from me.

After his lung surgery, he’d stopped taking his meds. Mental illness made his greatest fear appear true: Nelda didn’t love him.

Witnessing the extent of his disorder made me kinder. I started visiting my stepdad on weekends. We convinced him to visit his psychiatrist, who recalibrated his medications. Nelda and Russ reconciled.

Though I’d come to understand him, it took me the better part of a decade to allow myself to trust him — and my mother — with my secret. At 30, I told them I was gay.

“Never made any difference to me,” Russ said.

My jaw hit the floor.

“He’s known since you were 16,” Nelda said. “A boy telephoned. Russ went to get you. You fainted.” I remembered the phone call, but hadn’t realized they did, too. A guy from Nebraska I had a crush on had called long-distance. We’d met at student council camp and I’d been desperate for him to like me.

She paused. “It was hard for me, but he says you were born this way.”

So, Russell Lee had been my secret ally all along.

When I was 45, he fractured a hip, had a heart attack and went into a coma. That night, the nurses told Nelda she had to leave. She hugged Russ. Though he was unconscious, his arm pulled her closer.

I flew back to Texas from New York. “There’s little chance for recovery,” a doctor said. We signed the papers to unplug the respirator.

The morning of his funeral, I walked outside. A hummingbird hovered near my face.

“If I could choose anyone in the world as my dad, I’d choose you,” I whispered. The tiny creature floated a moment longer. Then, it darted away.


Court Stroud lives in New York City, where he’s working on a book.

Swimming With My Shirt Off

Swimming With My Shirt Off

At 13, I was a guy with breasts, and I needed to get rid of them to survive my upcoming teenage years.

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  • Jan. 7, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

When I was 13, going to public pools was painful.

I loved the water, but I was convinced that dozens of judging eyes were on me every time I took my shirt off. I wish I could say this was only a product of my adolescent imagination, but I knew it was not when a swimming instructor singled me out and asked me to wear a shirt during class.

Being the only one with a shirt on was more shameful than being bare-chested. But the instructor was trying to save me from embarrassment, like my parents and every other caring adult around me.

The fact was that I had man boobs, and I needed to get rid of them to survive my upcoming teenage years. My parents took me for hormonal testing because the condition, called gynecomastia, is usually caused by a hormone imbalance.

“You can either exercise or have surgery,” said the endocrinologist. I chose the gym. No one in my class was going to the gym yet. It was around that age when all the boys in the class were obsessed with their naturally developing abs and other gifts from the Creator — gifts that I wasn’t lucky enough to get.

When it came to my body, I had learned that there were things I didn’t like about it. Things that would make my life a living hell during high school unless I found a way out of them.

Besides the issues I had with my chest, I also started to realize that every time I saw other boys, my body would react in funny ways. I was attracted to boys.

But in my world, in conservative Guatemala City in the mid 2000s, boys didn’t have boobs and boys didn’t like other boys. Whoever did was a freak — the joke of the school. I was not ready to be that person. All I wanted was to toughen up, tone my muscles, and turn the page. My visits to the gym were slowly starting to show results, but everything changed when I met someone in the showers.

He was twice my age; he asked if he could touch me. I said no. One thing I remembered from science class was that no one was supposed to touch me like he wanted to. But then I gave in because I was curious. And then I was confused. This was wrong and I needed to put a stop to it. Suddenly, the gym was not an option for me anymore.

No one in our household was a quitter, and whenever we set our eyes on something, Dad was there to remind us that we had to finish it. But that rule became null as soon as I told my parents what had happened in the showers. Dad was angry, Mom was upset, and I was crying my eyes out, knowing that I had failed the people I loved the most, but more important, I had failed myself and everything I stood for.

My parents talked to the gym owners about the incident and told them that we were not coming back. Taking legal action was too much for us; we just wanted to check out of it and start a new chapter.

By the time I was 15, it was agonizing to take my shirt off. Surgery was my ticket out, I thought. The endocrinologist referred me to one of his colleagues.

When I got out of the hospital I immediately noticed that the scars on my chest were bigger than I expected.

“They will disappear after a while,” said the doctor. But as time passed and the scars healed, it was evident that they were not going to fade away. My supportive mom, who was all about doing whatever made me feel more comfortable, saw a doctor on the morning news who was considered one of the best plastic surgeons in the country. She made an appointment.

He said he couldn’t do much about the scars. But some chin augmentation and rhinoplasty could help me a bit, he said.

“His nose is natural,” said my mom. “It runs in the family.” My mom wasn’t going to let him touch my face. She had taught me to love my nose and look at it as my heritage from my loving grandpa. And I didn’t want more knives cutting through my skin unless it was to remove my unwanted scars.

“I think his nose is broken, but it’s your call,” said the confident doctor. He wasn’t going to help me in the way I wanted. I was stuck with my scars forever.

I went home and stormed off to my room as teenagers do in movies when they’re tired of the world. I rarely did that, but honestly, the occasion called for it. I guess my mom was as tired and disappointed as I was, so she didn’t even follow me to my room.

But Dad was there, and he wanted to know how I was feeling. I told him about my unfixable issue. He was a fixer, but the time had come for him to stand still and embrace the fact that some problems couldn’t be solved. He just held me in his arms ensuring me that everything was going to be OK, even though we didn’t know what that meant.

All I knew was that from that moment onward, taking my shirt off in public meant that I was vulnerable to questions. Questions that I didn’t want to answer. No one was entitled to know who I liked or why I had scars on my chest, but leaving those questions unanswered meant that people were free to draw their conclusions.

At the same time, I didn’t want to miss the pool time during the trips with my school, so I had to come up with a strategy that would allow me to enjoy the water without being seen. I resolved that the best way to avoid questions was to take off my shirt when everyone was distracted. All I had to do was wait for everyone to jump in while I lingered on the edge, and I would then remove my clothes when no one was watching. Once I was in the deep end of the pool, there was no way they could see my scars. I also had to be the last one out so no one would see me.

But I forgot that there was a group of kids who never went in. They would hang outside the pool, desperately looking for something to entertain themselves. “What happened to your chest?,” one of them asked. He wasn’t trying to make me feel miserable or weird. He just wanted to know.

“I had a little accident,” I said. The truth is, it was kind of an accident. I had never intended to have those scars and I didn’t deserve to feel guilty about them. The surgery was an attempt to feel comfortable in my skin, but it had left me marked forever.

“I thought you had a heart surgery or something like that,” the kid said. “They look badass. You should get a tattoo.”

I had played with the thought of getting a tattoo on different parts of my body, but it had never occurred to me that my chest could be the perfect spot.

The problem was that I always changed my mind about things. There was no way that I could have a permanent mark on any part of my body, because I knew I would regret it immediately.

However, my scars were, in a way, a tattoo. And there was no way to get rid of them. They were part of a painful and difficult story, but they were also a symbol of resilience during a season that I never thought I would survive. People could think of me whatever they wanted, whether I gave them an explanation or not. But these scars became part of my story, and no one can ever take that from me.

J. Martinez-Paz is a writer and filmmaker from Guatemala City.

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Ties

Not the Widow, Just the Ex-Wife

Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

Credit…Lucy Jones

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  • Dec. 4, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

My middle-aged son, Nick, calls from his car to tell me he’s racing up the 405 from his office in Los Angeles to a hospital in Ventura, to be with his father, who is on life support. The staff at his assisted living facility couldn’t find the “do not resuscitate” document allowing him to die from the heart attack that had deprived his brain of oxygen for 30 minutes. Nick’s been on the phone with the E.R. doctor, urging him to remove the breathing tube his father never wanted. They remove it.

Although I haven’t lived with Eckart for 30 years, I’ve been his second health advocate for more than a year, ostensibly to help Nick, who lives 90 miles away, and also for reasons I haven’t wanted to look at. I hesitated before asking, “Do you want me to meet you there?”

When we enter the E.R., Nick goes quickly to his father, touches his hair and his warm cheek and puts his hands on Eckart’s chest under the blanket. I won’t know Nick held his hands until later when he tells me that he wanted to feel their strength one more time. Eckart had spent his last year in a wheelchair, becoming weaker each month but managing, until recently, to hide the dementia that had begun years ago.

Although I have put my hands on my euthanized animals, my fear of dead humans keeps me from touching my former husband’s face. I can only touch the blanket and say, “What a complicated fellow you were.” Our son knows the history, and I am saying it for him as well as for myself.

His father came out to me when Nick was 10 but didn’t leave until Nick was 14. Another five years would pass before our son would know why. It was the late 1980s, AIDS had exploded, adding a taboo to Eckart’s revelation that hadn’t been there before. Not only was it still secretive, it was dangerous to be a gay man when who you were could take your life.

We spent nearly an hour in the small room with Nick signing papers, a social worker kindly offering sympathy, and the young doctor who had disconnected the breathing tube, after locating the D.N.R. document, reassuring us that Eckart would have been brain-dead. A risk-taker from his childhood in Germany, he’d exited as speedily as he’d driven, first the autobahn, and then American highways. Once a strikingly handsome man, he now lay with his mouth wide open, his dentures left in his assisted-living studio apartment this one last time.

I’d introduced myself as “Nick’s mother” and sat off to the side. The social worker wanted me to know that there were bereavement support groups in the small town I lived in. But were they for former spouses? Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart? Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? Or is it grieving for the end of possibility, to revisit the decision and to ask him, “Did you ever regret leaving?”

I realized I’d always been waiting for him to say about our 20 years together, “It wasn’t nothing.”

Despite my history with this man, the hurt, the fury, and the deep doubts he’d sown when he canceled 20 years of our life together, I didn’t want to leave him there alone, to be wheeled away to a cold vault, pending more paperwork and cremation. I wanted us to sit with him, to be together as a family. I imagined that if we kept a vigil I might be able to touch his skin, then still warm, and for the first time be less afraid of death. For as his spouse, albeit former spouse, I was next in line — or so it seemed there in the all too bright light, shimmering around me.

In the following weeks, before the scattering of his ashes, the “sea burial,” as Eckart’s brother called it, and the memorial luncheon which included just six of us, I was surprised to find myself back in the album I thought I’d left behind decades ago: meeting Eckart when I was 25, a young journalist from New York on assignment in West Berlin, marrying in New York, having his child and those 20 years together before being left in midlife. He’d framed my youth and my motherhood and created some protection from my bipolar, often psychotic mother.

No longer in the foreground of each other’s lives, we remained in each other’s background for decades, never as out of touch as others who divorce. It wasn’t nothing, even in separation.

As Eckart had embraced the gay life in New York, while living with us as a family, any self-confidence I still had was chipped away — for living with a closeted gay person isn’t a recipe for feeling desirable. Keeping the secret from our son did its own kind of damage. As the years followed, when I was asked why I had never remarried or re-coupled, I would say crisply, “I’m cured,” when really I was in retreat, where no one could reach me. I was ultimately on my own, accompanied only by pets I could trust — our cat and my long line of dogs.

For too many years the animals I would rescue were stand-ins for me. It was I who needed to be rescued, except on those days when I was a grown-up some of the time. I’d recovered from years of agoraphobia following a postpartum depression, but didn’t realize that humiliating midlife dating was perfect terrain for a phobic who didn’t know how to drop the story line, didn’t know how to live in the present tense.

It’s taken too many more years to finally admit that Eckart wasn’t the cause of my solitary life after the marriage but that, just as I’d allowed my ill mother to seduce and reject me, seeing myself as a reflection in Eckart’s eyes was a learned habit — as familiar as loving the unavailable, troubled mother. I’d married the absentee parent as so many of us do. Even if I’d had no control over the end of the marriage, I had some choice in how to respond, how to prevail and even to flourish instead of retreating.

For when choice seems impossible, it is still there, squirreled away where we can’t see it but there, just the same. Or as we discover, not choosing is the choice.

Linda Gravenson is a co-editor of and contributor to “In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50,” and recently completed a memoir.

A Hunger Crisis in the L.G.B.T. Community

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Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a 53-year-old transgender woman has for years relied on food pantries.

Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a 53-year-old transgender woman has for years relied on food pantries.Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans are more visible than ever before. Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, and the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres are gay. Kate Brown of Oregon is the first openly bisexual governor. The Olympic gold medalist and transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner has a reality show.

But the affluence of such prominent figures masks a bleak reality: Many people in the L.G.B.T. community go hungry.

A new report on hunger found that more than one in four L.B.G.T. adults could not afford to feed themselves or their families at least once in the past year. By comparison, only one in six heterosexual adults reported a similar crisis.

Certain subgroups in the L.G.B.T. community are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity, including minorities, women, the unmarried, bisexuals, those without college degrees, younger people and those who have children in the home. (It is believed that transgender people also go hungry, but data on this group is lacking.) Experts say L.G.B.T. teenagers, who are not covered in this report, are also at risk of going without food, especially if they are homeless.

Behind the statistics are people like Sofia Torres, a lesbian who at 71 is unemployed and receives only $35 a week in food stamps after recent cuts. Or William Gonzalez, a 50-year-old gay man from Queens who survived a hate crime and lives on a government disability check, and relies on a local food pantry called the River Fund for groceries. Or Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a 53-year-old transgender woman has for years relied on food pantries because finding a job is so difficult.

“As soon as they realize you’re trans, you see their face changes; everything stops right there,” Ms. Walker said.

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Sofia Torres receives only $35 a week in food stamps.

Sofia Torres receives only $35 a week in food stamps.Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Ms. Torres worked her whole life in construction, carpentry and security jobs, but she never married or had children, so her support system is thin. Though she has friends, she said, “Friends come and go.”

The new report, “Food Insecurity and SNAP Participation in the LGBT Community,” published Monday, uses data from four major national surveys that, when combined, represent the lives and challenges of nearly 20,000 people in the L.G.B.T. community.

“This is eye-opening for many people, and it’s even eye-opening for many in the anti-hunger world, who haven’t typically worked with the L.G.B.T. community,” said Adam P. Romero, a scholar of law with the Williams Institute at U.C.L.A. School of Law who is one of the authors of the new study. “I’ve had a number of people from different anti-hunger organizations say, ‘Wow, I had no idea that hunger was such an issue in the L.B.G.T. community.’”

The findings will also surprise many within the community itself, said Lorri L. Jean, the chief executive of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

“Our own community is as ignorant of these statistics as the straight world,” she said.

The surveys include the Gallup Daily Tracking Survey of Adults, the National Survey of Family Growth, the American Community Survey of Cohabiting Couples and the National Health Interview Survey of 2014. (The SNAP program referred to in the report’s title refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program commonly called food stamps.) ConAgra Foods provided some funding for the report.

According to the new report, L.G.B.T. adults are 1.6 times more likely than other adults to report that they did not have enough money for food for themselves or their families at some point in the last year. Same-sex couples are 1.6 times more likely to have received food stamps in the past year, compared with heterosexual couples.

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Food insecurity has a disproportionate effect on minorities. When asked the question, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” the differences are striking.

Nearly half of L.G.B.T. African-Americans (42 percent) answered yes, compared with 28 percent of straight African-Americans. Among Hispanics, 33 percent of L.G.B.T. adults had been hungry, compared with 24 percent of those who are straight. Among whites, 21 percent of L.G.B.T. whites reported not having enough money for food in the past year, compared with 13 percent of those who are straight. Notably, among Native Americans and Alaskans, L.G.B.T. and straight adults were equally hungry, with about 30 percent each reporting that they had been too poor to buy food in the past year. The data is from the Gallup Daily Tracking of Adults which surveyed 81,134 straight people and 2,964 people who identified as L.G.B.T.

Among L.G.B.T. people, women were more likely to be hungry than men; 31 percent of women and 22 percent of men reported not having enough money for food in the past year.

The perception that the L.G.B.T. community is affluent, educated and high-achieving has been perpetuated by Hollywood characters like the lawyer Will Truman on the sitcom “Will & Grace,” and reinforced by a cascade of high-profile celebrities, businesspeople and athletes.

Because gay and lesbian couples have historically been less likely to have children, there also is a perception that such couples have more disposable income than people with families. Though the data is fairly sparse, most studies actually show gay men earn less on average than other men.

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William Gonzalez survived a hate crime and lives on a government disability check.

William Gonzalez survived a hate crime and lives on a government disability check.Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times

The belief that most L.G.B.T. people are affluent is “one of the most persistent and, frankly, pernicious myths about the L.G.B.T. community,” said Gary J. Gates, who wrote the first report on food insecurity in the L.G.B.T. community and is an author on the new report as well. “It emerged in part from the community itself, as part of a strategy of marketing the population as an attractive consumer market.”

While the strategy of promoting “pink” money and the purchasing power of the L.G.B.T. community “got a lot of companies on board and increased their understanding of L.G.B.T. issues,” he said, it also hid the economic problems faced by vulnerable members of the community.

“It’s not like on TV, where all the gay people are fabulous and live in nice apartments in Manhattan and are white,” said Cathy Bowman, L.G.B.T. and HIV project director at Brooklyn Legal Services.

Many anti-hunger organizers are now starting to think about how they can make their food services more welcoming to L.G.B.T. people, and how to address the issue from a policy perspective, said Abby Leibman, the president and chief executive of Mazon, a national anti-hunger advocacy group.

Ms. Jean, of the Los Angeles L.G.B.T. center, said she planned to use the new report to raise awareness and “raise a ruckus,” and press the local food bank operation to restore the food pantry that used to be at her center.

“I have had government funders over the years say to me things like, ‘Yeah, but you people don’t need it,’” Ms. Jean said. “There’s this myth in our society that gay people are rich, but it’s not the truth. We have this huge swath of people who make less that their straight