Health

Treating Endometriosis as a Women's Disease Hurts Patients of All Genders

Living with endo is already hard when you're a white cis woman. For LGBTQ people dealing with a "women's disease," it's especially painful.
November 11, 2020, 12:00pm
Treating Endometriosis as a Women's Disease Hurts Patients of All Genders
Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection

In 2016, Les Henderson’s lung collapsed twice in two weeks. Henderson, a Black, masc-of-center lesbian who uses she and they pronouns, was diagnosed with thoracic endometriosis after waking up from surgery to fix the collapsed lung—and only because her surgeon thought to connect it with the timing of her period. 

Henderson, now 36, was diagnosed with endometriosis when they were 29 after years of struggling with terrible pain during their period. It wasn’t until they were recovering from their lung collapses a few years later that they learned endometriosis could be found elsewhere in the body. 

They blamed this delay on the inadequate care they received from biased doctors. “I’ve gone through the ringer with several OBGYNs. If I were a typical feminine, cis straight woman, I’d be taken a lot differently," they said. “Masculine people aren't expected to hurt, aren't expected to be weak. And that's something that I have definitely noticed with the unconcern and disregard I've gotten with this.”

“What is it about myself that's not deserving of endo care?” said Henderson. “What is it about this trans person that you can't properly help? What is it about this Black woman that you can't help?”

It takes nearly a decade for most patients to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis, which is said to impact one in 10 people assigned female at birth. When a patient is LGBTQ, diagnosis can take a lot longer—in part because queer and trans people have statistically lower access to medical care than cis patients in all senses, but also because of the way endo is characterized as a "women's illness." 

“We consider [endometriosis] this disease of ‘menstruating females,’” said Heather Guidone, Patient Care Advocate and Program Director at the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, Georgia. “What about gender-diverse folks?" 

“[Endometriosis is] so grounded in this notion that [it's] a disease of affluent white women,” said Guidone. “If you don't look like what you think an endometriosis patient is 'supposed' to look like, your disease may be overlooked.” According to Guidone, this bias is predicated on how endometriosis is misunderstood on a medical level. "It all links back to the idea that this is a pelvic disease, this is a womb disease. Literally, this is a disease that's found outside of the uterus.”

Although endometriosis is linked to the hormone fluctuations associated with menstruation, “Endo is not just painful periods,” said Jessica Shim, a gynecologist at Boston Children's Hospital. The disease is caused by tissue that's similar to (but biologically different from) the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus that grows outside of the uterus. It can adhere to parts of the reproductive system and other pelvic organs. Endometriotic lesions can also be found outside the pelvic region. The condition can cause severe pain, infertility, pain during sexual penetration and orgasm, digestive issues, and brain fog, among other debilitating symptoms. 

Endometriosis is commonly framed as largely impacting white, middle-class women in their “childbearing years.” This stereotype persists because prominent early theories of endometriosis (like the rest of gynecology) were rooted in racism and sexism. For nearly 100 years, the gynecologist John A. Sampson’s theory that endometriosis was caused by "retrograde menstruation," or menses that flow backwards into the pelvis, has been the basis for how doctors approach treatment. While it may be one cause of endometriosis, research shows most people who menstruate exhibit retrograde menstruation. For decades, pregnancy and hysterectomy were touted as “cures,” and today, birth control and other medications that mimic pregnancy or menopause are still prescribed to treat symptoms of endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a disease process driven by estrogen, according to Shanti Mohling, a gynecological surgeon based in Portland. Endometriosis doesn’t require the ovaries to produce estrogen: It actually makes its own. This means that a hysterectomy, inducing menopause, or pregnancy won’t stop the disease.

“The effects of endo aren't just related to pregnancy, conception, and menstruation," said Cara Jones, a professor of womens’ studies at California State University who uses she and they pronouns. Her research uses feminist, queer, and disability studies as a framework for understanding endometriosis as a “dynamic disability.” According to Jones, "It affects the digestive system, the musculoskeletal system, and different organs. It affects mood. It's a whole-body condition.”

Joe V. Meigs, a once-celebrated Harvard gynecologist, is largely to blame for 20th century doctors’ obsession with endometriosis and pregnancy. As Jones wrote in the 2020 article "Queering Gendered Disabilities," “Meigs spent his career encouraging physicians to compel upper-middle class white women to have children early and often,” due to his belief that "endometriosis developed from failing to use their reproductive systems.” His work made a target of career women, since many endometriosis patients were diagnosed after discovering their infertility in their late 30s or early 40s. Meigs even argued for policies that would pay white men more so their wives could stop working and focus on having babies.

Many health care professionals have rightfully thrown out the outdated and incorrect guidance popularized by Sampson and Meigs. But many leading medical institutions continue to define and diagnose endometriosis as anchored in white, cis, heterosexual reproduction. “Many clinicians are unable to disentangle gender from anatomy when it comes to providing care,” said Frances Grimstad, another gynecologist at Boston Childrens’ Hospital.

According to the New York Times, most medical schools only spend five hours educating students on LGBTQ-specific practices, which leaves patients to educate their own doctors while in the exam room, or stay mum entirely. This can mean that queer and trans people may be hesitant to seek treatment for endometriosis, in part because relying on trans and queer patients to advocate for themselves on an individual level can be exhausting for them and counterproductive to their path towards healing. “I'm usually fine answering questions and educating people,” said Ryan McGill, a 27-year-old transmasculine non-binary person. “But: Right now it feels like there's like a gremlin in my stomach trying to escape. Can you please help me?

Kat Aschman, who is 24 and non-binary, delayed going to the doctor after multiple bad experiences. “I didn't want to have to go into a doctor's office and be told, ‘Oh, that's just a women's health issue.’ I didn't want to be labeled as a woman in order to seek treatment. So I avoided treatment until I really needed to.”

Some of the people VICE spoke to made the choice to not disclose their gender identity to medical providers in the past in order to avoid mistreatment. “I'm not entirely sure that my doctor understood that I wasn't a woman,” Aschman said. “I just wanted to get relief, because it was impacting my ability just to function.”

“I haven't ever talked to one of my endometriosis doctors about gender identity,” said Kat Eckert, a queer, non-binary person who uses she and they pronouns. “I don't know if it would be a safe space to bring that up.” These experiences are backed up by a 2015 study, which found that a majority of healthcare providers show implicit preference for straight patients over queer ones.

Inadequate training around queer healthcare issues can be dangerous for LGBTQ patients—especially for trans patients undergoing gender-affirming treatments. After being prescribed birth control to manage their endo symptoms, McGill asked their doctor about what drug interactions the birth control would have with the testosterone they took as a gender-affirming medication. The doctor had no idea what interactions existed between the two drugs. 

“I'm not gonna take something if you don't know how it's going to interact with my particular body,” McGill said. “If my doctor handed me medication and is not sure of herself, why would I feel comfortable putting that in my body?”

Going to a queer-friendly clinic isn’t necessarily the answer, either. Just because a physician provides gender affirming healthcare doesn’t mean they’re automatically more understanding of pelvic pain than the average doctor. “It’s challenging,” Henderson explained, “[Sometimes] you find a queer-[friendly] doctor, but they know nothing of endo. [Or] you find an endo specialist, but they're biased.”

Emory Pringnitz—a 24-year-old with endometriosis who identifies as queer, bisexual, and non-binary—had the former experience with one OBGYN, which soured the identity-affirming aspects of their care. “That's when I decided that the lovely bedside manner she was giving me wasn't worth not seeing any symptom relief,” they said.

Trans healthcare isn’t exempt from cissexism. Some medical providers won’t think to diagnose endometriosis in transmasculine patients, even when they present classic signs of the disease, because of their gender identity. As Shim explained, some patients and doctors believe that being on T can solve pelvic pain and painful periods by stopping them altogether. When the bleeding and pain continue, many doctors have no idea what to do.

Cori Smith, a trans man with endo, described receiving biased care in a blog written for the Endometriosis Association of America. His lapsed symptoms came back after he started T, and he requested a hysterectomy to relieve his pain. While the surgeon removed Smith’s two swollen ovaries, he refused to remove his uterus, “allegedly telling Smith that he ‘didn't feel comfortable aiding in [his] transition,’” according to the piece.

“Uterectomies are overprescribed for cisgender women with endo, yet trans men are denied the same treatment,” summarized Jones in "Queering Gendered Disabilities." But Henderson described an experience where one OBGYN suggested they get a hysterectomy after they disclosed their queer identity because, Henderson said, the provider claimed not to “understand [their] lifestyle.” Racism may have been part of why this doctor pushed Henderson to get a hysterectomy: Black women in America receive hysterectomies at rates far surpassing white women; a whistleblower recently brought light to the eugenicist practice of forcing hysterectomies on Latinx women in ICE detention centers. 

“Women of color are being offered a hysterectomy almost right off the bat for endometriosis,” said Jones. “We have these divergent tracks for different groups of people experiencing the same thing.” 

This June, Grimstad and Shim published a study looking at how endometriosis presents in 35 trans adolescent patients experiencing pelvic pain after starting to transition on T. Only seven were evaluated for endometriosis through laparoscopy, which is the only way to affirmatively make a diagnosis. “We found that there was a 100 percent detection rate of endometriosis in these patients,” said Shim. Their study should encourage doctors to take time to investigate the cause of transitioning patients’ pain, as many incorrectly believe that being on T should stop endometriosis symptoms.

Patients can’t sit around and wait for research to catch up to their lives. It’s up to clinicians to take steps to address biases right now. The people VICE spoke to suggested that creating a welcoming environment, being inclusive on intake forms, and having providers share their own pronouns is an easy and necessary place to start. 

“I don't care whether they're the receptionist—all the way up to the surgeon, everyone needs to have training,” said Henderson.

“You don't need to have a budget meeting and in a coalition get together to decide to say ‘people with periods’ instead of ‘women,’” said Guidone, who believes that the best way to give patients care is to actually ask them what they want—whether it’s preserving their fertility, getting rid of pain, or both of those things, or something more. 

As patients await these changes, trans men will still develop pelvic pain and non-binary people will be misgendered in medical settings as they seek care.

The gendered biases, misconceptions, bigotry, and simply bad information that are inherent to endometriosis have endlessly frustrated Henderson in their attempts to access treatment. “If you can't check your prejudices when you're serving the public, you need to take your ass to another profession,” they said. “Health care is no place to be when you can't get your biases in check.”

Emily Lipstein is the Senior Social Editor for Motherboard. Follow her on Twitter.