1. Health

Nonprofit wellness center offers safe haven for those in need of hormone replacement therapy

A St. Petersburg-based nonprofit that helps the Tampa Bay area's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities has begun offering hormone replacement therapy for transgender patients.

Metro Wellness & Community Centers, which has locations in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, provided the first treatments early this month at its primary care facility at 3251 Third Ave. N in St. Petersburg.

The therapy, often referred to as HRT, can be a crucial step for transgender individuals, whose personal gender identities do not align with the conventional gender assigned to them at birth.

"What Metro is doing is absolutely essential to moving the transgender community forward," said Jean-David Parlier, a transgender man who attended a recent Metro Wellness event.

The center is not the only local facility where patients can obtain the hormones necessary for a gender transition — estrogens for women and androgens for men. But gender therapist Tristan Byrnes said it's nice to have a safe treatment center for those looking to begin a process that is often accompanied by misinformation and discrimination.

"It's a huge problem getting a doctor. One doctor goes on medical leave for two to three months, and there's a panic in the community," said Byrnes, a transgender man. "I'll be referring a lot of people to Metro Wellness."

Jace Neal, also a transgender man, described his troubles getting the proper medical care. He said he visited a half dozen doctors, none of whom were comfortable starting him on testosterone for his transition, before he found one who would.

He said he has been on testosterone for more than three years and has yet to get his levels checked by a doctor because his insurance won't cover the visit.

"All the surgeries they think are elective," Neal said. "If you can't afford it, you really can't do it."

For a transgender person, feeling comfortable in one's body can be a lengthy and expensive journey. Parlier and Byrnes estimated the first two years of transitioning female to male — which includes mental health services, hormones and surgery — can run an uninsured person around $10,000 on average.

Dr. Meredith Gray, the physician who offers HRT at Metro, said in an email that procedures like HRT often are not covered despite being both safe and effective.

Not every transgender person elects to undergo treatment. But for those who do, gender-affirming surgery and other parts of transitioning are anything but elective, experts say.

According to a National Transgender Discrimination Survey released in 2011, 41 percent of non-gender conforming people attempt suicide.

Said Parlier: "It's tough to go to the beach with double Ds and be one of the guys."

Chris Rudisill, the director of LGBT community center services at Metro, said offering HRT fits into the organization's goal of providing health services to everyone in the area. The center opened in the 1980s in response to the AIDS epidemic and recently began offering primary care for individuals looking for a reliable, nonjudgmental health provider.

Gina Duncan, Equality Florida's transgender inclusion director, praised Metro's HRT service, saying it will provide a much-needed refuge for many people.

"There's no labels. There's no categories," she said. "Just people trying to be their authentic self."