Cultural Competence in the Care of LGBTQ Patients

Earn CME/CE in your profession:

Continuing Education Activity

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community consists of a cross cultural broad range of community members and includes all races, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and a range of socioeconomic status. The healthcare needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer community should be considered to provide the best care and avoid inequalities of care. This activity reviews the evaluation and treatment of members of the LGBTQ community and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in caring for patients that are members of this community in a professional, ethical, and caring manner.


  • Describe acceptable terms for gender and sexual identity in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer community.
  • Summarize challenges in the care of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer community.
  • Outline communication strategies to provide culturally correct evaluation and treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer community.
  • Explain the cultural competence in the care for LGBTQ community patients.


The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community consists of a cross-cultural broad range of community members and includes all races, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. The healthcare needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer community should be considered to provide the best care and avoid inequalities of care.[1][2]

Culturally competent care of a member of this community includes:[3]

  • Care that targets a specific population
  • Social and structural equality of care
  • Avoidance of discrimination and stigmatization

Issues of Concern

Learning to take care of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer community involves understanding and being open to multiple special considerations and avoiding unconscious and perceived biases. Members of the LGBTQ community have unfortunately experienced a challenging history, but health professionals can learn to provide compassionate, comprehensive, and high-quality care with education. The following will assist the provider in caring for LGBTQ patients.[4]

Understanding Terms[5][6]

  • Androgyny (gender-fluid, gender-neutral) – In between genders, having both male and female characteristics.
  • Asexual – Individuals that do not experience sexual attraction.
  • Bisexual (pansexual, queer) – Individuals that are attracted to both males and females.
  • Cisgender – Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
  • Cissexism – Prejudice or discrimination against transgender people.
  • Coming out – Sharing gender identity publicly.
  • F2M/FTM (female to male) – Female at birth but identifies as a male.
  • Gay – Identify gender as male but are attracted emotionally, erotically, and sexually to other males.
  • Gender – Emotional, psychological, and social traits describe an individual as androgynous, masculine, or feminine.
  • Gender attribution – Process in which an observer assigns the gender they believe an individual to be.
  • Gender binary – Belief that individuals must be one of two genders, male or female.
  • Gender expression – Individual appearance, behaviors, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, and social behavior associated with femininity or masculinity.
  • Gender identity - Personal sense of gender that correlates with individually assigned sex at birth or can differ from it.
  • Gender non-conforming – Gender behaviors that are in between feminine or masculine binaries.
  • Gender role – Traditional behaviors, characteristics, dress, mannerisms, roles, and traits associated with being male or female.
  • Genderqueer – Individuals that identify themselves as both feminine and masculine.
  • Hermaphrodite – A no longer acceptable way of describing intersex individuals.
  • Heterosexism – Discrimination against gay individuals based on the belief that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation.
  • Heterosexual – Individuals attracted to members of the opposite sex.
  • Homophobia – Prejudice against the gay community.
  • Homosexual – Individuals attracted emotionally, erotically, or sexually to members of their own sex. This term has been replaced with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer
  • In the closet – Hiding individual gender identity.
  • Intersex – Individuals born with sexual characteristics that are not typical of male or female binary notions.
  • Lesbian – Females that are emotionally, erotically, or sexually attracted to females.
  • LGBTQ – Individuals that are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer.
  • M2M/MTF (male to female) – Male at birth but identifies as a female.
  • Men who have sex With men (MSM) – Males who participate in sexual relations with other men regardless of sexual orientation.
  • Queer – A general term refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals, sometimes considered derogatory.
  • Questioning – Individuals uncertain of their gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Same-gender loving – Bisexual, gay, and lesbian African American individuals.
  • Sex assigned at birth – Sex assigned based on an infant's external genitalia.
  • Sexual behavior – How an individual displays their sexuality.
  • Sexual identity – Individual's description of their sexuality.
  • Sexual orientation – Individual's sexual identity concerning their gender attraction.
  • Transgender – Individuals whose gender expression is different from their birth sexual assignment.
  • Transition – Individual's psychological, medical, and social process of transition from one gender to another.
  • Transphobia – Discrimination, harassment, and violence against individuals that do not follow stereotypical gender identities.
  • Transsexual – A term formally used to describe individuals whose gender identity is different from their assigned birth.

Patient Versus Provider Use of Slang Terms

Members of the LGBTQ community, in describing their sexual orientation or partners, may use terms such as fag, dyke, gay, homo, or queer. While patients may use these terms, they are considered derogatory when describing a patient by a health care provider. The provider and staff should listen to the LGBTQ patient and follow their lead, and when in doubt, ask the patient how they or their partner should be described. Once the terms are established, a note should be made in the record to follow the pattern of description for future visits. Electronic medical records may require modification to provide appropriate terminology.[7]

Challenges To Caring for LGBTQ Community[4]

Healthcare providers without training and education often face challenges in the care of patients in the LGBTQ community such as:[8]

  • Difficulty in openly discussing sexual health-related issues
  • Due to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections among MSM, the CDC recommends annual screening for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis, as well as immunization for hepatitis A and B
  • Failure to be familiar with gender modification surgeries
  • Failure to be sensitive in addressing sexual acts or complications unique to the LGBTQ community
  • Failure to remember to use gender-neutral terms such as significant other or partner
  • Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Higher rates of eating disorders
  • Higher rates of homelessness
  • Higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and HIV transmission
  • Higher rates of tobacco and substance abuse
  • Individuals may be reluctant to share sexual practices and hormone use
  • Individuals may have prior traumatic experiences with clinicians
  • Insensitivity towards individuals that may engage in relationships with multiple partners or individuals of the same sex
  • Lack of understanding of behavior or terms and being uncomfortable in questioning meanings
  • A tendency to make assumptions about behavior based on appearance
  • Use of alternative medications such as black market hormones
  • Using language or words that are derogatory or discriminate

How to Create A Practice That Welcomes Members of the LGBTQ Community[5]

There are several ways providers can welcome members of the LGBTQ community, such as:

  • Advertise practices as accepting of members of the LGBTQ community
  • Educate staff and providers to be comfortable in discussing sexual orientation, gender orientation, and sexual practices
  • Include members of the LGBTQ community as part of your staff and train your staff to refer to patients by their name and chosen descriptive pronoun (Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc.)
  • Maintain an open mind and avoid judgment regarding sexual orientation and practices
  • On intake forms include the term partner in addition to the spouse; include transgender as an option
  • Participate in referral programs such as the GLMA or GayHealth
  • Post LGBTQ symbols and posters of ethnically and racially diverse transgender or same-sex couples
  • Provide patient brochures on sexually transmitted infection prevention, substance abuse, safe sex practices, and hormone therapy
  • Provide waiting room magazines about the LGBTQ community
  • Support observance of LGBTQ Pride Day, World AIDS Day, and National Transgender Day of Remembrance
  • Train staff and provide continuing education on the care of the LGBTQ patient

False Assumptions

Healthcare professionals may falsely make assumptions about LGBTQ community members, such as females do not have children or are at low risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Violence Screening[9][10]

The LGBTQ community is often harassed and may be subject to violence. Transgender patients are particularly at risk. They may also experience domestic violence. As such, ask all patients screening questions such as:

  • Are you now or have you ever been physically, mentally, or sexually abused by someone close to you?
  • Are you currently abused in any way?
  • Have you ever been sexually assaulted?
  • Are you afraid of anyone?

Patients should be informed confidentiality will be maintained as much as state reporting levels allow.

Special Needs of Bisexual and Lesbian Women[4][11]

A woman that identify themselves as bisexual or lesbian may range from feminine to masculine. Their needs are similar to all women, but they may have the following additional needs. Healthcare providers need to make sure these patients feel comfortable in making disclosures regarding their sexual practices. In general, these patients have similar healthcare needs to heterosexual patients. If they have challenges, they usually stem from lifelong discrimination and harassment, resulting in anxiety, depression, and stress. Bisexual and lesbian women may face additional challenges, such as:

  • The belief that pap smears and regular screening are not necessary
  • Desire for childbearing and need to discuss options for conception.
  • High-risk behaviors such as multiple sex partners resulting in higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and HIV.
  • Higher rates of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use secondary to chronic stress associated with discrimination and homophobia.
  • Higher rates of being overweight or obese with associated diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
  • Higher rates of depression, often associated with a lack of acceptance by friends or family.
  • Higher rates of some cancers due to less childbearing.
  • Lower health insurance rates than heterosexual women, with fewer funds available for expensive prescriptions and follow-up visits.
  • Lower pregnancy rates, and when they do bare children, are more often at an older age.
  • Some states do not recognize same-sex domestic violence, and women’s shelters may discriminate.

Special Needs for Bisexual and Gay Men[11]

The healthcare needs of bisexual and gay men are similar to the general male population. However, they have higher rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, and depression. Due to a higher rate of homophobia in certain cultures, such as African Americans, Asians, Latino, and Pacific Island, males may have even higher rates of mental health challenges. Bisexual and gay men may face additional challenges, such as:

  • Exclusion from community and family due to shame and embarrassment associated with some cultures
  • Higher rates of alcohol, substance, and tobacco use
  • Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide
  • Higher rates of human papillomavirus-associated with anal cancer
  • Higher rates of poverty
  • Higher rates of weight problems and obesity
  • Higher risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infection transmission associated with anal sex
  • Less access to health insurance through a marriage
  • Staff sensitivity training

The health care provider should ensure that the staff is trained to appropriately care and speak to LGBTQ patients appropriately and ethically, further understanding that discrimination is illegal and morally unacceptable. Religious beliefs or negative feelings must be put aside.[8] Address such issues as:

  • Avoid discriminatory beliefs
  • Basic knowledge of issues in the LGBTQ community including depression, discrimination, domestic violence, harassment, HIV, homophobia, safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse
  • Use of appropriate language

LGBTQ Is Not A Disease

Regrettably, at one point in medical history, being LGBTQ meant having a psychiatric disease. Fortunately, after years of lobbying, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association members voted to determine if homosexuality was a disease. The ensuing vote led to a compromise, and homosexuality as a diagnosis was removed from DSM-II. It was replaced with “sexual orientation disturbance” for patients “in conflict with” their sexual practice and orientation. Later, in 1987, homosexuality was completely removed from the DSM.

LGBTQ Features, Medical, and Surgical Therapy[12][13]

LGBTQ has two distinct features, gender identity and sexual orientation. When obtaining a history, providers should ask about gender identity and sexual orientation and gender identity to better understand patients' health risks.

Sexual orientation for gay and lesbian individuals usually involves being attracted to people of the same sex, whereas heterosexuals are mostly attracted to individuals of the opposite sex. Sexual orientation is an identity label and sometimes does not correspond to a person’s sexual behavior.

Gender identity for transgender patients identifies sex other than the one they were assigned at birth, whereas cisgender patients identify with the sex they were given at birth. The term transgender also includes patients who identify gender as non-binary, meaning that their gender identity is not exclusive to males or females.

When evaluating a patient, use non-gendered words and evaluate how the patient describes the person they are in a relationship. Listen to how the patient describes the relationship. For example, a transgender couple may prefer to be described as a same-gender couple and not a straight couple. People in a relationship who have non-binary genders may prefer the term partner.

Providers should not assume gender or sexuality. While sex may be documented, it is important to be culturally sensitive and use the name they wish to be called.

Transgender transitional care

Transgender individuals may seek medical and surgical gender-affirming interventions. This includes hormone therapy, facial hair removal, surgery, speech modification, genital tucking, and chest binding. Some consider these procedures medically necessary. The current standard of care allows transgender patients to determine what interventions they need to affirm their own gender identity.


Surgeries available to the transgender populations include feminizing vaginoplasty, masculinizing phalloplasty, scrotoplasty, masculinizing chest surgery, facial feminization procedures, reduction thyrochondroplasty, and orchiectomy. These procedures are considered cosmetic; however, some patients believe these procedures help their gender identity.

Hormone Therapy[12]

Gender-affirming hormone therapy is a common medical intervention used by transgender individuals. Such treatment allows secondary sex characteristics aligned with an individual's gender identity. Hormones are used to suppress male secondary sex characteristics in favor of developing female secondary sex characteristics. The approach of therapy is to combine an androgen and estrogen and sometimes add progestogen.


The estrogen 17-beta estradiol, which is chemically identical to that produced by the ovary, is commonly used for feminizing therapy. The drug is given via cream, oral, sublingual, or transdermal. Conjugated equine estrogens have been used but are no longer prescribed due to blood clots' potential, increased cardiovascular risk, and ethical considerations.

Androgen Blockers

Androgen blockers (antiandrogens) are often used to suppress testosterone production and male secondary sexual characteristics. The effect is less reliable because the sexual characteristics that are established by puberty are typically not reversible. Spironolactone, a potassium-sparing diuretic, has an anti-androgen effect on testosterone production at high doses of 200 to 400 mg/day. Hyperkalemia is a serious side effect. Patients may develop polydipsia, polyuria, and orthostasis. If the patient is also taking an ARB or Ace inhibitor, monitoring should be frequent. Androgen blockers may be used as single agents to decrease masculinization and in patients with contraindications to estrogen therapy. Side effects may include decreased energy, mood depression, and hot flashes.


Testosterone identical to testosterone secreted from the human testicle is injected or used topically for non-transgender men with low androgen levels. Higher dosing may be needed in transgender men than in non-transgender men.

Hormonal Therapy Effects[14]

  • Body hair reduction
  • Enhanced breast development
  • Erectile function reduction
  • Facial and body fat redistribution
  • Feminine emotions
  • Feminine odor
  • Libido reduction
  • Muscle mass reduction
  • Reversal of scalp hair loss
  • Sperm count and ejaculatory fluid reduction
  • Sweat reduction
  • Testicular size-reduction


Bisexual women, lesbian, and transgender men face pregnancy challenges. For cisgender, female, same-sex couples, who lack a sperm-carrying partner, child-bearing requires fertility support. Transgender men are challenged by a male-presenting pregnant.

Gynecologic Risks

Risk factors include:

  • Bisexual women, lesbians, and transgender men are less likely to receive pap tests
  • Cisgender women who have sex with women, who have both male and female partners, may be at increased risk of sexually transmitted infections and HIV
  • Lesbians may be at increased risk of polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Transgender men who have sex with men may be at increased risk for HIV infection

Promoting LGBTQ Privacy and Confidentiality[16]

Some members of the LGBTQ community may not make their gender or sexual orientation public. Further, they may not be used to discussing their relationships with others. The health provider needs to assure the patient that their communication and medical records, including tests and results, are confidential.

While there are no laws that specifically address the LGBTQ community, the following laws address privacy.

HIPAA Privacy Rule – The law respects the patient’s wishes on privacy matters. Hospitals and providers may only disclose a patient's PHI to a family member, relative, close friend, or any other person the patient identifies.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - The law prohibits sex discrimination in any institution that receives federal funds. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity; requires that all gender identities be treated equally; prohibits the denial of health coverage based on gender identity, pregnancy, and sex stereotyping; and requires individuals to be treated consistent with their gender identity.

Clinical Significance

All healthcare providers interact with members of the LGBTQ community. Interaction in a positive manner will improve patient outcomes. Providers need to understand the LGBTQ population history, unique health concerns, and risks, and develop communications skills that avoid discrimination and provide compassionate care.

Health professionals should be aware that the LGBTQ population experiences higher rates of challenges due to discrimination, social pressures, sexual behaviors, and less healthcare access. The LGBTQ populations have higher rates of tobacco use, sexually transmitted diseases, and depression. To provide the best care and achieve betters outcomes, all healthcare providers need to learn and understand the special needs of LGBTQ patients.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Better patient outcomes will be achieved in the care of the LGBTQ community if providers learn the terms, healthcare risks, and maintain a good fund of knowledge in the care of these patients. Remember to use gender-neutral language. Consider the possibility of anxiety and depression. Evaluate for sexually transmitted infections.

It is most important to be respectful of the LGBTQ patient and remember that the challenges they face from society are substantial.

Article Details

Article Author

Brittany Bass

Article Editor:

Hassan Nagy


10/3/2022 8:43:28 PM



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