Planned Parenthood of Illinois offers gender transition care to rural areas

A transgender woman meeting her doctor in the waiting room of doctor's office. Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly's Gender Spectrum Collection.

While Planned Parenthood is usually in the news for reproductive rights and abortion access, its services go well beyond that, including STI testing, family planning and gender affirming hormone therapy.

Transition-related healthcare is difficult to find and afford, even in large cities. According to the Williams Institute, one-third of transgender people said they avoided health care due to cost in the past year, even for general medical care needs. Only 56% of transgender people overall had a transgender-related health care provider.

“Even with proper health insurance, transgender people face barriers to good quality and specialized care,” said Ilan H. Meyer of the Williams Institute.

Which makes Planned Parenthood’s gender affirming care that much more important.

While Illinois is generally more welcoming of transgender people than other midwestern states, it’s not a given across the entire state. Much of the state’s transition-care is focused in Chicago and university towns, meaning less access for anyone outside of those areas. Planned Parenthood helps to fill those gaps.

Dana Garber, Planned Parenthood intake coordinator

Dana Garber, a gender affirming hormone therapy intake coordinator, said Planned Parenthood started reaching out in 2016.

Gerber, who is trans herself, is a member of the Peoria Transgender Society and the organization held a health summit to help find resources for therapy, counselling and transition-related care. Planned Parenthood staff approached them during the summit and explained the program they already had at their two Chicago clinics. The rest is history.

“We now have gap care at all 17 health centers in Illinois,” Garber said. She works at the Peoria clinic interviewing and scheduling new patients for the program.

Planned Parenthood had always been involved in hormone therapy as a part of birth control services. “So who better do that than us,” Garber said.

She also said that the organization saw it as giving care in a safe space and many patients came to Planned Parenthood specifically because of that. They now serve around 1,600 patients statewide with half in downstate Illinois. “There’s a large underserved need,” Garber said.

Areas outside of Chicago simply didn’t have much transition care until Planned Parenthood expanded their services.

“The challenge is setting up and making sure everyone is trained,” Garber said, “and ensuring we’re always treating the whole patient.”

Trans patients encounter major disparities in care overall. According to the Center for American Progress, nearly 1 in 2 trans people, including 68 percent of trans people of color, reported experiencing some form of discrimination or mistreatment at the hands of a health provider in the past year. One in three reported having to teach their doctor about transgender people in order to receive the appropriate care. Cost can also be a huge issue.

“There’s a lot of discrimination against our community, so it’s hard for them to get employment,” Garber said.

Planned Parenthood is introducing a sliding scale fee for its transition care, much like their sliding fee for other services. Prospective patients can fill out an income form and find out if they qualify. The clinics can also do phone and telehealth appointments.

“It’s an incredible amount of services we offer,” Garber said.

Emma, who is from the Decatur area, is one of those patients. We’re using only her first name to protect her identity.

Emma is a native to Illinois, but had started her transition when she was living in Orlando, Fla., which has an active LGBTQ community and a wealth of resources. Economics wound up pushing her back to conservative central Illinois just five months into her transition.

“It was interesting for me,” she said. “I grew pretty conservative and fitting in with this area. Transitioning really opened my eyes, changed who I was and made me a lot less comfortable with this area.”

I would have googled endocrinologist
and hoped for the best.”

Emma, if gender affirming therapy wasn’t available at Planned Parenthood

Luckily it was pretty easy to find care through Planned Parenthood. She found out through Reddit that the organization had a gynecologists’ who had done hormone therapy. And they were in the area.

“Since I was already on hormones, I didn’t want obstacles,” she said.

If Planned Parenthood hadn’t been an option, she’s not sure what the options would have been when moving back.

“I would have googled endocrinologist and hoped for the best,” Emma said. “Maybe go to [Southern Illinois University] because I’ve heard so many good experiences through their network.”

She is happy that there is an option and that LGBTQ people have access, especially youth. “I get a lot of hope seeing what it is like for youth these days,” Emma said. “How much better it is for them than it was my age. I didn’t k now and didn’t have anything to show me how I was.

“I just love to see it.”

To get into the gender affirming hormone therapy program, people can just go to the website to sign up or schedule an appointment or call the contact center. Garber said that they accept Medicaid and a lot of commercial insurance. The organization operates on informed consent, where patients are educated about the treatment and they decide. It was selling point for Emma as well. There’s also an voluntary intake interview, which is what Garber often does. She asks the patient the kinds challenges they face and what their goals are. It’s comprehensive and takes around an hour. Planned Parenthood also has a wealth of resources available for Illinois, many contributed by the patients themselves.

To help, just support Planned Parenthood.

“We take volunteers to help us spread the word,” Garber said. “I also volunteer with community engagement. We will pass out information condoms, swag and get people to talk to us. That’s one way we find patients who need our help and how patients find out about us.”