Jessica Halem, a former Chicagoan and Harvard Medical School's first-ever LGBT program director, gave the keynote address, "Honor the Dead and Fight for the Living," at the Midwest LGBTQ Health Symposium Sept. 15 at Malcolm X College.
Halem started her career working for then Rep. Bella Abzug after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. Among her other career accomplishments are 15 years performing comedy, transforming Howard Brown Health's Lesbian Community Care ( formerly Cancer ) Project during its early years and serving on Barack Obama's first LGBT Advisory Committee. She is the recipient of many awards and is a member of the Tegan and Sara Foundation board of directors.
Howard Brown Health ( HBH ) President and CEO David Ernesto Munar thanked Malcolm X College for hosting the symposium in the wake of the citywide hotel workers strike ( JW Marriot was the original location ) while HBH Center for Education, Research and Advocacy Vice President Andie Baker unveiled the center's new voting drive campaignWho's Seats? Your Seats!
"This year, more than ever, we are reminded of the urgency of the issues that we face," said Baker. "It is time to mobilize and get to the polls."
Halem roused the crowd with her facial expressions and bawdy sense of humor as she took the stage. Her humor caused bursts of laughter throughout her talk.
"Howard Brown, you are crushing it," Halem said at one point. "You have to really love the community you serve to be up this early on a Saturday morning. I am inspired by all of you and the work you do."
Halem said she was born a radical Jewish feminist lesbian, added that every LGBTQ person has been "surviving and thriving in the face of great adversity since most of us were born."
In terms of the work she does, Halem said places like Harvard Medical School have a history of inertia that is weighing them down and making it hard to enact the changes LGBTQ people are clamoring for with regards to training and overall cultural competency. Halem explained that the lack of diversity in leadership is a part of why these institutions are slow to change.
Halem said that she wanted to talk about honoring the dead and fighting for the living because far too often this is not the case because of how one talks about health. She explained that people do not ask why people, for example, smoked or drank too much alcohol or ate too much or took care of everyone else and not themselves. Instead, Halem said, they talk about risk factors and this does not help anyone get at the root of the issue.
"We need to have real conversations even within our own LGBTQ community about this issue," said Halem. "Queer women especially do not take care of themselves enough, including going to the doctor, and that has to change. Everyone needs to take two hours out of each day to take care of their minds and bodies."
Figuring out what is working and improving on what is not working is the key, she added.
Halem explained that in medical schools sex and gender, and the differences between the two, are not being taught, and that only five hours of class time is spent talking about LGBTQ people and their issues. She said they instead spend a lot of time talking about what is "normal" i.e., the threshold with which everything is measured and that excludes LGBTQ people's lived experiences.
"What would medicine look like if, for the past 100 years, LGBTQ people were the doctors studying their own communities patients," said Halem. "What if LGBTQ people were the standard that everything else is measured by in medicine."
Resilience is something Halem said she is obsessed by. She said New Orleans is not resilience because of Hurricane Katrina but because of what the city has had to deal with historically.
"It is not about the hits you take, it is about how quickly you can bounce back," said Halem. "White cisgender heterosexual rich men do not have the same resilience because they do not have to deal with the things the rest of society has to face on an everyday basis."
One thing that Halem does as a part of her job is to recruit LGBTQ people into Harvard Medical School. She said that 17 percent of this year's incoming students are LGBTQ.
"The most important thing that should happen in medicine is to get the patient and provider to talk openly with each other," said Halem. "Also, LGBTQ people need to go to their healthcare provider on a regular basis and be honest with them about their lives."
Halem called on the audience to seek some pleasure and joy in their lives and quoted Audre Lorde: "When I dare to be powerfulto use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
A Q&A session followed.
HBH and the Center for Education, Research and Advocacy were the symposium's presenters.
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