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Opinion: UMN School of Public Health must implement permanent course on LGBTQ+ health 

There are few classes in SPH that focus on these communities.
Image by Sarah Mai

Minnesota became the first U.S. state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in 1993 with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which provides protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender non-conforming (LGBTQ+) populations in employment, housing, credit, education and public accommodations.

While this piece of legislation leaves a groundbreaking legacy, thirty years later in 2023 LGBTQ+ people in Minnesota still face a number of challenges. One of these challenges is the lack of opportunity to formally engage in learning about LGBTQ+ health in higher education.

Currently, I am the instructor for “LGBTQ+ Health and Policy” at the University of Minnesota Public Health Institute, which offers this class for four days during the summer session. To my knowledge, there are currently no other courses on LGBTQ+ health offered at the University.

As a doctoral candidate set to graduate within the next year, I worry about what will happen to this course once I am no longer at the University to teach it. Most importantly, I worry what will happen to those potential students who may have developed a greater knowledge of their communities and/or a greater sense of belonging just because this course existed.

Given the current challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in Minnesota and across the country, students deserve now more than ever to learn about what we can do to promote health equity for LGBTQ+ populations ––through a permanent course offered through the School of Public Health (SPH).

In Minnesota LGBTQ+ people represent just over 4% of the population, but represent a greater proportion of disparities in education, healthcare and employment.

In the United States, LGBTQ+ people still face discrimination in all sectors.

Notably, in 2016 the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities named the LGBTQ+ community as a health disparity population. Yet, despite this growing body of knowledge about social determinants affecting the LGBTQ+ communities and national identification of these inequities, the SPH has not implemented a permanent course on LGBTQ+ health that would explore these challenges and generate creative solutions.

Having a permanent course on LGBTQ+ health would bolster SPH’s mission and values and show their legitimate commitment to health equity. SPH’s mission and values statements, which focus on “excellence in research and education … and … advancing policies and practices that sustain health equity for all,” state that “our future depends on education.”

My vision for health equity, briefly, involves providing for historically marginalized populations–this starts with and is sustained by education. A permanent LGBTQ+ health course serves this purpose of furthering health equity for LGBTQ+ populations by educating our future public health practitioners and researchers about these marginalized populations. 

Another reason SPH needs to integrate a permanent course on LGBTQ+ health into its curriculum is to generate a greater sense of belonging and better climate for its LGBTQ+ students.

In a 2021 graduate survey, known as the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey, 73% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual and asexual (LGBQPA) SPH students responded that the climate for LGB+ students in their program/department is at least as good as it is for heterosexual students. Within this same survey 17% of nonbinary SPH students reported that the climate for transgender/genderqueer/gender non-conforming students in their program/department is at least as good as it is for cisgender students.

It’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure the climate is supportive and inclusive for LGBTQ+ students at SPH.

Implementing a permanent LGBTQ+ is just one diversity, equity, and inclusion effort that SPH can do to promote health equity for its students. Some may argue that the current 4-day course setup is enough.

This view, however, is short-sighted.

Every summer since I’ve taught this course, students have indicated in the evaluations that they want to see this course as a 7- or 14-week course at SPH. By integrating a permanent LGBTQ+ health course into its curriculum, SPH is more firmly showing its commitment to health equity for its students and LGBTQ+ populations, just as its mission indicates.

It’s important now more than ever, given the attacks on LGBTQ+ rights across the country, that SPH shows that it is behind the populations it seeks to serve. 

Courtney Sarkin is a PhD candidate in the Division of Health Policy & Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and studies LGBTQ+ health equity.

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