Seeking out safe sex in the LGBTQ+ community


(Illustration by Abigail Katz | Staff Illustrator)

The average human being can only be so comfortable with openly discussing how to insert an internal condom, which is why organizations like the Rainbow Alliance come prepared with a prosthetic vagina.

“You have to overcome that hurdle of talking about it at all in order to talk about safe sex practices,” Rainbow Alliance President Kate Shindle said.

The stigma surrounding sex in the LGBTQ+ community still prevents many individuals from discussing safe sex or sex in general, Shindle said — but organizations such as the Rainbow Alliance, the Delta Foundation and the Pittsburgh Equality Center have resources available for those who are seeking information about health and sex practices.

Shindle, a senior biology major, said sex education for LGBTQ+ people is often portrayed as morally wrong and discouraged in formal settings, leading to miseducation, confusion and unsafe sex practices.

“One of the big problems that the LGBTQ+ community has is that for as much as sex education is terrible for heterosexual people in this country, it is basically nonexistent for LGBTQ+ people,” Shindle said.

Because of this lack of education, Shindle said the Rainbow Alliance tries to provide clarity on common misconceptions — such as the belief that two women having sex are less likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases than a man and a woman.

“When I came out, I knew that I was attracted to women, but I had literally no idea what any of that meant in terms of what any kind of sex would look like, or what kind of protection I would be needing,” they said.

Shindle said the Rainbow Alliance strives to provide this kind of information to anyone who needs it. Their office on the sixth floor of the William Pitt Union is stocked with various resources, such as condoms and club officers willing to speak to anyone wanting more information about the logistics of safe sexual practices in the LGBTQ+ community.

“Especially, if you are an LGBTQ+ individual who is closeted from your parents or is trying to hide it, you’re not going to go out of your way to find those resources,” Shindle said.

As a coordinator at the Pittsburgh Equality Center, part of Parker Howard’s job is to educate the LGBTQ+ community on topics like safe sex practices, in addition to providing access to more information through resources such as their LGBTQ+-specific library — which is the second largest of its kind in the United States.

Howard, a 21-year-old South Side resident, referenced the need for such resources because of a major education gap, where LGBTQ+ individuals are often not informed about safe sex until well after they have become sexually active and informed through the community. The quality of sex education varies highly from school to school, but often focuses primarily on heterosexual relationships rather than LGBTQ+ sex practices.

“Sex is seen as a bad thing and a moral thing, something that people shouldn’t be told about till they’re older,” he said. “But by the time that they’re that old, they don’t learn anything anyway, and they’ve probably already had sex by that point.”

With limited opportunities for sexual education, it’s sometimes difficult for members of the LGBTQ+ community to access new and available resources such PrEP, an HIV prevention drug. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis — a drug that alters antibodies and T-cell functioning to make the body less receptive to the HIV virus.

“It’s a preventive form of HIV combatant,” he said. “You take it before it happens, so it’s less likely to happen.”

To spread the word about preventative medicines like PrEP, and other health care needs that may go unnoticed in the LGBTQ+ community, organizations like the Delta Foundation — an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in Pittsburgh — work with health care providers to make sure individuals have access to these resources.

Christine Bryan, director of marketing at the Delta Foundation, said the most important aspect of practicing safe sex and health practices is finding a health care provider that the patient can share everything with.

According to Bryan, 51, from Robinson, finding a physician with whom a patient is comfortable sharing the extent of their sexual orientation and history is the first step in getting proper health care.

“Your doctor is kind of like your attorney — they need to know everything about you,” Bryan said.

Bryan said one of the Delta Foundation’s key initiatives is working to identify health care providers in Pittsburgh who are culturally competent — meaning they understand the LGBTQ+ community enough to use proper lingo and meet their patients’ needs.

“Lots of doctors will say that they’re LGBTQ+-friendly, but that’s different than being culturally competent,” she said.

Bryan said many LGBTQ+ individuals may not be comfortable speaking to the family doctor they grew up with about their sexual orientation or gender identity, making it imperative that those individuals find a physician with whom they feel comfortable.

Not only does Bryan encourage individuals to seek out information on their own through resources on the internet and organizations such as the Delta Foundation, Planned Parenthood and Central Outreach Wellness Center, but she also suggests they advocate for themselves to access the proper health care they deserve.

“You have to be an active participant in your health,” she said. “You can’t wait, or expect the other person that you’re with to be the person in charge.”