An Interview with Zena Sharman, Editor of The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care

The Remedy is a beautiful and powerful anthology sharing queer and trans voices on health and health care. Edited by the brilliant Zena Sharman, this anthology brings so much light and awareness to the experiences of queer and trans individuals and communities. Contributors to the The Remedy share personal stories from diverse experiences and perspectives around interacting with and from the complex world of health care. It was published in 2016 by Arsenal Pulp Press and awarded a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT anthology in 2017. This anthology moved me deeply both personally and professionally.  Zena's introduction to the anthology is incredibly powerful and poignant, highlighting the ways in which health care, or lack thereof, affects the queer and trans communities in often detrimental and traumatic ways. She also helps her readers understand that the power of personal story is an important, but often missing, part of cultivating systematic changes in health care. Her anthology does just that: it brings the power of personal story to the conversation, and with it, a clarion call for change.

Art credit for the book cover: Oliver McPartlin

Art credit for the book cover: Oliver McPartlin

The Remedy is such a valuable resource and Zena's voice adds so much to the important discussion of queer and trans health care, I knew I wanted to learn more about her personally and about this project. And I wanted to be able to share with you, my readers. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview here on The We Belong Project. I am pleased to introduce Zena Sharman to you, my readers. In our interview she shares about her background, more information on The Remedy, and some helpful information for health care providers and for individuals who are accessing health care.

TWBP: Tell us about the birthplace of The Remedy. What inspired you to create this anthology? What lead up to the creation of such an influential body of work?

Zena: In the introduction to The Remedy I tell the story of how I was inspired to create the anthology after guest lecturing on queer and trans health to a group of first-year medical students. After the lecture, small groups of students were paired with members of the LGBTQ+ community who had volunteered to talk to them about their identities and experiences. I joined in on one of those tutorials and I remember being struck by how earnest and curious the students were, and how our honest, intimate exchanges about my identity and community as a queer person had a different quality than giving a research-based lecture to 300 people. It got me thinking about how a lot of writing on queer and trans health was in the form of journal articles or clinical guidelines, and how powerful it would be to create a book that centred people’s stories. Stories are a powerful means of teaching empathy and understanding in ways that don’t always come through in the abstract or “objective” voice common to a lot of conventional academic writing.

An anthology felt like a natural fit for the project because I’m a big fan of the genre, and because it seemed like the most effective way to bring a diversity of voices and perspectives into the conversation. In creating this book I felt (and still feel) acutely aware of the limits of my perspective and experiences as a white, cisgender queer person who can easily pass as straight when I need to. I have access to healthcare, a stable home, and a steady income. My body does not bear the brunt of the health disparities faced by the members of the queer and trans community who experience the most oppression and discrimination because of their identities, bodies, and lived experiences. While I feel a lot of caution about reducing the complexities of queer and trans lives and identities into statistics, there’s no doubt that some members of the queer and trans community experience a disproportionate burden of health disparities – for example, trans and gender nonconforming people, bisexual people, and certain populations of gay men. This is particularly the case for trans women, queer and trans folks who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and those who are living in poverty. It was essential that The Remedy include their stories.

TBWP: Who is The Remedy for?

Zena: I created The Remedy for two main audiences (and recognize that there are lots of folks who exist in the Venn diagram of both overlapping identities): first, it’s an offering to the queer and trans community - a collection of stories that I hope readers will find healing and affirming, and enraging, too, because the discrimination, disparities, and lack of access to care that many of the stories touch on is overly familiar to too many of us.

The book is a celebration of our ingenuity, our resilience, and our capacity to care for ourselves and each other outside of and often in spite of the systems that are meant to do so.

The Remedy is also meant for health care providers, trainees and students, educators, and others with a stake in queer and trans health. People who make policy in the health system are reading it. Trans people studying to be health care providers are reading it. My genderqueer partner’s mom read it. A public health nurse recently told me about how her copy is making the rounds at work and is sparking a lot of interesting conversations with her colleagues. One of things I appreciate the most is how often people tell me they finished the book and immediately gave it away to someone else who they thought would benefit from reading it. My hope is that The Remedy offers audiences who may be less familiar with or new to queer and trans health an opportunity to engage with and learn from people’s stories and lived experience. While The Remedy isn’t a clinical how-to guide, it offers insights into queer and trans identities, lives, health needs, and how to provide us with respectful and affirming care.

TWBP: What is your background and what is your professional training in?

Zena: I’ll begin with the more conventional answer, because I imagine that your readers might find it helpful to learn a little about my professional background. I have a PhD in interdisciplinary studies and my professional training is as a qualitative health researcher, which taught me that people’s stories and personal experiences are critical to our understanding of health and health equity. I’ve spent the past ten years or so working in leadership roles at health research funding agencies – first as the Assistant Director of the CIHR Institute of Gender and Health (where I worked from 2008-2015), and more recently as the Director, Strategy at the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. I’ve been a volunteer board member with a couple of trans health-related organizations – currently, I co-chair the board of the Catherine White Holman Wellness Centre, a holistic health care centre for transgender and gender-diverse communities in Vancouver, BC. I also served on the board of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health from 2013-2015.

When I think about my background, I tend to think the facets of my identity and history that inform who I am and how I move through the world. I often bring the personal into my biographies or presentations, something that seems less common in the circles I travel in professionally (and very common in the circles I travel in personally). This call to centre the personal and my intersecting identities – including how I benefit from and participate in oppression, as well as how I experience and am harmed by it – is something I learned from the work of activists, artists, scholars, and leaders, many of whom are queer and trans or members of other communities who experience oppression on the basis of their identities. Here I want to specifically acknowledge the wisdom and labour of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, trans women, folks with disabilities, and sex workers, because they’re some of the people and groups I’ve learned a lot from – and continue to learn a lot from – in this regard.

With that context established, I’ll situate myself as a white cisgender queer femme living as a settler on the unceded Indigenous lands of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. My ancestry is Scottish and English. I was raised in poverty by a single mom in a small northern city, an experience that still informs how I relate to class and place. My mom, who died in 2014, was a life-long activist, artist, writer, and trauma survivor who first taught me about the connections between art, writing, and social justice. I came out as queer in my early twenties and was lucky to be welcomed into a community of tough and tenderhearted femme geniuses and radical faerie drag queens. (They recruited me to go-go dance for a queer punk band and the rest is history.) All of them were activists, writers, and performers and it felt like they invited me to step through a portal into a sparkly, radical queer world that I’ve called home ever since.

My identity, personal history and academic training influenced my passion for art and writing as a means of healing, identity formation, community building, and social justice. That passion has taken many forms over the years, from throwing queer dance parties to hosting radio shows to emceeing community fundraisers to being a volunteer facilitator for a LGBTQ+ film-based anti-bullying program to editing books. In 2011 I co-edited the Lambda Literary award-nominated anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme with Ivan Coyote. Co-creating that book deepened my appreciation for anthologies and taught me a lot about how to create an edited collection. I applied that learning to the process of editing The Remedy, which took about two years. I haven’t figured out what my next project will be, though I have a feeling it’ll involve more creative writing. I’m curious to see where inspiration will take me next, and in the meantime I’m enjoying the break between projects. It feels good to catch my breath after working so hard on The Remedy!

TWBP: What is your favorite form of self care?

Zena:  I tend toward workaholism so my favourite – or at least most necessary! – form of self-care is practicing listening to my body so I don’t overschedule and overwork myself. I had an “aha!” moment when I realized that this is about setting boundaries with myself and others in deciding what I want to enthusiastically invite in and what I need to say no to. I work full-time and do all of my writing, volunteer work, and advocacy on the side, so that often means giving myself a reality check about what I can accomplish in a day (spoiler alert: it’s usually less than I thought). It means I have to be more intentional about where I put my energy, and prioritize doing the stuff that helps me feel healthy and grounded, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and cooking (and eating!) delicious, nourishing food. I sometimes feel frustrated or anxious when things stagnate on my to-do list, or when I feel like I’m missing out on events or activities because I choose to stay home and rest (#fomo), but the overall feeling of spaciousness and well-being it gives me is worth it.

TWBP: You highlight in your introduction to The Remedy that most people who are queer or trans expect discrimination from their health care providers. In a culture where discrimination varies from micro- aggression to overt violence from health care providers, what advice to you have for patients in terms of how to find safe and affirming health care providers? Or what can they do to keep themselves safe and access the health care they need?

Zena: Access to care is a huge issue for a lot of reasons, especially in the US where so many queer and trans people struggle with lack of health insurance or who may be at risk of losing their insurance through the Affordable Care Act. In Canada, where I’m from, we have a public health system so that removes one barrier for the queer and trans community. Regardless of geography, though, access to safe and affirming health care and health care providers is a persistent – and significant – challenge for queer and trans people.

My first piece of advice is to begin by checking out the ‘zine You Don’t Have To Love Your Body to Take Care Of It by Kelli Dunham, an ex-nun genderqueer nurse author nerd comic. Kelli’s ‘zine is an accessible, funny, practical, and trauma-informed guide for queer and trans folks on accessing health care. (Kelli also wrote a wonderful piece on queer caregiving for The Remedy but I would recommend this ‘zine no matter what!)

Second, I’d encourage people to do your research and tap into the wisdom of your communities. Gather information about the services and providers in your area. Look for clues – does a clinic or health care provider have information on their website or in their space that signals LGBTQ+ competence, like queer and trans-inclusive language or gender-neutral washrooms? (I realize that these physical clues don’t always translate into actual competence – a rainbow flag does not a safe provider make – but it’s one piece of information to look for.) If you have access to community in person or through social media, ask other queer and trans folks for referrals to LGBTQ+-competent health care providers in your area. I often see queer and trans folks ask each other for advice on which health care providers or clinics to go to (and which ones to avoid). We’re really good at sharing and crowdsourcing information.

TWBP: Some of the contributors in the anthology described the trauma that occurs when a health care provider is silent in the face of systemic marginalization. I know as a cisgender white female health care provider, I have often avoided talking to my patients about the intersection of race/gender/sexuality/social status and other determinates of health due to fear of “getting it wrong”. I am learning that my silence can create a sense of further marginalization. Any advice for health care providers who care but are insecure about their ability to “get it right” but very much want to be safe and affirming?

Zena: Don’t let fear of getting it wrong stop you from trying to get it right. Reflect on what’s underneath that fear – are you worried that you don’t know enough, or that you might offend a patient? Are you missing some practical skills or clinical knowledge? Are you bumping up against some of your own implicit (or explicit) biases about queer and trans people? Seek out the information and mentorship you need to fill the gaps in your knowledge, build your skills, and overcome your biases. In doing so, try not to rely only on your queer and trans patients to educate you – while some people are happy to do this, it can be frustrating or exhausting for others. There are a lot of great resources out there – books like the Fenway Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health (2nd ed.), LGBT Healthcare: A Clinical Guide, or Trans Bodies, Trans Selves – as well as conferences and training opportunities offered by professional associations and community groups.

Approach the process with curiosity, empathy, and humility. Practice the steps you need to take to offer safe and affirming care, and learn how to offer a genuine apology when you don’t do as well as you’d hoped, because we all make mistakes. Be trauma-informed, because queer and trans people experience a disproportionate burden of trauma and violence both inside and outside the health system, and we carry that burden with us into our health care encounters. Know that building these skills can be literally life-saving for your patients.

TWBP: Many thanks to you, Zena, for taking the time to share with us a little bit about yourself and The Remedy, and for sharing your expertise with us.

If you want to find out more about The Remedy, you can visit http://www.writetheremedy.com/

Photo Credit: Sarah Race.

Photo Credit: Sarah Race.

Zena Sharman is a femme force of nature and a passionate advocate for queer and trans health. She’s the editor of the Lambda Literary award-winning anthology, The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). Zena co-edited the Lambda award-nominated anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011). She has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies and has worked in leadership roles at health research funding agencies for the past decade. Zena co-chairs the board of the Catherine White Holman Wellness Centre, a holistic health care centre for transgender and gender-diverse communities, and is a former board member of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health. Her resume also includes party thrower, cabaret host, go-go dancer for a queer punk band, campus radio DJ, and elementary school public speaking champion.