The doctor informed me that there was no point in being tested because women couldn’t have sex with each other and therefore couldn’t transmit STIs. Even though I had never made it past Junior Cert biology I felt like something was wrong with that statement, but I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge to question it.
A few years later I became a volunteer with Dublin Lesbian Line and for almost a decade I have heard echoes of similar experiences, some with terrible consequences; including STIs left untreated for many years, and fertility problems.
Within our community, Women* and non-binary people with a vagina’s sexual health needs are invisible. Since the 1980s, with our first HIV epidemic, the sexual health needs of MSM (men who have sex with men) have been the main focus of healthcare in the LGBTI+ community. While this healthcare was, and still is, essential, the sexual health needs of lesbian and bisexual Women* were not, and still are not, considered.
The HIV crisis is only a part of why LGBTQIA+ Female* sexual health has been forgotten. Ireland’s historical attitudes to, and treatment of, Female* sexuality and bodies, along with misinformation and assumptions about the sexual practices of WSW have contributed hugely to the dismissal of our needs. This is clear when we compare availability of services for MSM and WSW.
For MSM there are national sexual health campaigns and access to free STI testing, condoms and counselling. Many LGBTQIA+ Women* in Ireland don’t know that we can get STIs and cisgender women and non-binary people with vaginas often aren’t informed that we still need to get cervical tests and breast checks. There are no specialised services, which means that we’re often met with ignorance, misinformation and discrimination when trying to access general sexual health services. Women* who identify as either lesbian or bisexual as well as trans or non-binary face a whole additional plethora of barriers to accessing services, and are impacted not just by stigma surrounding their sexuality but in the ignorance and judgements regarding their gender identity. While it’s true that trans women can also access services for MSM, I have spoken to women who feel that it invalidates their womanhood by having to access a service designed for men. There is no access to dental dams for safer sex, unless we import them, or make them ourselves! There is no specific data on sexual health needs of WSW in Ireland.
Our sexual health is invisible to the point of neglect.
Over the last five years, I’ve seen a huge change in WSW’s enthusiasm to engage with their sexual health. Almost ten years ago, DLL ran a campaign called ‘Smears for Queers’ which was not received well. DLL made little packs which contained information on smear tests and included dental dams. In the context of the time I can see why people were affronted; this was before even civil partnership, and many people didn’t want to draw attention to their sexuality. From even before the laundries, Irish women have been taught that our sexuality is something shameful and not to be talked about. Leaflets with the 50-Foot Woman proclaiming ‘Smears for Queers’ handed out in pubs and clubs were perceived by many as drawing too much attention to a private matter – and one which wasn’t relevant anyway; the pervasive belief being that Women* didn’t need to practice safer sex or get cervical tests.
DLL persisted with sexual health promotion and over the last few years have piloted various ways of introducing the topic to LGBTQIA+ Women* with great success; through workshops and information sessions on everything from consent and communication to DIY dental dams. We really hope to run our first LGBTQIA+ Women*‘s Sexual Health course this year. So far we have been doing this on an ad hoc basis because we have not been funded for such.
Supports and services need to extend beyond our small organisation. Medical staff and service providers need to be educated on WSW’s health needs. National research on LGBTQIA+ female sexual health needs to be conducted. Women of our community need to be able to access accurate information, support and services to educate ourselves and protect our health.
Here’s how can you help:
Donate to DLL, sign up to our Newsletter, take part in our Empowering Change: Recognising and Challenging Sexual Harassment of LGBTQIA+ Women* Project and get support!
All information can be found at www.dublinlesbianline.ie, and they can also be contacted at 01-8729911
Dublin Lesbian Line (DLL) is a confidential listening and support service by and for LGBTQIA+ Women*.
Women* / Female* = inclusive of all female-identified people, as well as those who are non-binary and prefer female spaces, who are female aligned, who sometimes identify as female or who present as what society deems female.