Ricky García, a bisexual/pansexual genderqueer Chican@, has been living with type 2 diabetes for 30 years. An advocate for people with disabilities at an independent living center in Claremont, California, ze knows first hand the struggles that many trans and gender non-conforming Latin@s face when living with diabetes.
A Native of East Los Angeles, Ricky comes from a family with long history of diabetes. Before dying at the age of 91, hir maternal grandmother lived 20 years without legs. Hir father died in his early 40s from diabetes related complications.
Because of this, Ricky’s family went to great lengths to prevent diabetes. “I was always checked for diabetes by my grandmother and father as a child. They were concerned about my status because they lived with the fear that I would get it.”
Growing up, Ricky stayed active and credits a near drowning at the lake in Lincoln Park in Los Angeles with helping hir stay healthy. “Swimming was the sport my mother put me in after I almost drowned. So I think this kept me in good shape.”
Unfortunately, as ze entered hir teens, Ricky began to gain weight. Because of this, Ricky’s doctor informed hir that ze was at high risk for type 2 diabetes.
Through diet and exercise Ricky was able to keep diabetes away. It wasn’t until hir last pregnancy that ze was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and was prescribed insulin to treat Ricky and hir unborn child. “This,” Ricky says, “was the beginning of a downward battle with my diagnosis.”
There are no hard numbers for the rate of diabetes in the LGBTQ Latin@ community as a whole. However, based on statistics of overall diabetes rates in the Latin@ community, one can estimate that close 300 thousand LGBTQ Latin@s are currently living with diabetes. For LGBTQ Latin@s with diabetes, the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality has its own set of challenges.
Diabetes can be particularly hard on transgender people, especially those on gender affirming hormone therapy. Because hormones often affect sugar levels in the blood, some physicians recommend that people stop taking them. For trans people, this may be a hard sell. “A trans person would rather take the hormones than the diabetes medication because that is the priority for our well being, to express ourselves as our true selves,” Ricky explains.
In Ricky’s case, ze had to fight hir doctor at the Fontana Kaiser Permanente Medical Center for 6 months just to obtain a prescription for testosterone. Eventually, ze had to look for services elsewhere since that hospital was unfamiliar with how to treat trans people. Ze eventually settled for the Hollywood Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, despite living in Pomona.
Ricky’s experience is, unfortunately, not unique. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (Released in 2010 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force), 32 percent of trans Latin@s reported being discriminated against by medical practitioners or institutions, with higher rates of discrimination reported by trans Latinas and trans feminine genderqueer people.
In addition to discrimination at hospitals and clinics by medical staff, some trans people with diabetes simply don’t have medical insurance to cover expensive medicines and doctor visits. Twenty-eight percent of trans Latin@s and 36% of undocumented trans people report not having any form of health insurance (either public or private). Fortunately, Ricky currently has a health insurance. That was not always the case. “There have been times when I did not have medical insurance and I had to seek medical attention from free clinics to ensure I get medical attention.”
But diabetes isn’t the only life-long illness Ricky has had to deal with. At 18, Ricky contracted Hepatitis C as a result of sharing needles during intravenous drug use.
Ze is not alone. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 26 percent of transgender people reported abusing drugs at one time or another as a way of coping with discrimination, compared to 9 percent of the general population.
This is not without repercussions. As a result of Hepatitis C, Ricky must be very careful with the medication ze takes. “As Hepatitis affects the liver and all medication filters through [there],” Ricky explains, “I can only take certain medication because they can further damage my liver.”
However, despite all the obstacles ze has encountered, Ricky has persevered. Last year ze underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost 115 lbs. Although not an easy decision, Ricky does not regret it.
Ze now has hir diabetes under control with most of the symptoms completely gone. Ze has even been able reduced the amount of medicine ze needs to take. “I have my life back,” Ricky says, “and I am now able to live a healthier fuller lifestyle. Is this the answer for everyone? No. This lifestyle has come with sacrifices, but I had to decide if I wanted to end up like my other family members or break the cycle of death by diabetes.”
The LGBTQ Latin@ community has a long way to go in addressing the needs of people in our community living with diabetes. Ricky believes it comes down to education about our diet and helping people stay active. “We need to start moving – [creating] walking groups for lunch, [educating our] communities through food choices.” Ze continues, “We are a very active community when it comes to our rights as trans people, but we need to change the way we feel about our bodies and our image.”
Ricky understands that for trans Latin@s it may not be easy. “Our culture is based around food. This makes it hard because we [as Latin@s] pride ourselves with how [well] we cook.”
“Until we change the way we eat, we can’t change our community’s risk for diabetes,” Ricky says.