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Twenty-six years ago, a group of local women stood in the home of Susan Hester. Her partner, Mary-Helen Mautner, had recently died from breast cancer. Mautner was a consummate notetaker, and she’d left her grieving friends a list of things she’d become grateful for as she battled her cancer: She had insurance, she had friends to take her to appointments, she had women in her life who advocated for her. But she wanted them to do something else, now: to make sure that other lesbians fighting cancer had those things, too—especially those who didn’t have the same access she did.
This effort grew into the Mautner Project, a nonprofit cornerstone of support, care, and education for lesbians as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the D.C. community and beyond: Longtime community health educator D Magrini says Mautner has conducted trainings on lesbian-health and cancer-care advocacy for health care providers in every state, per a CDC grant.
Almost exactly one year ago, Mautner began a collaboration with Whitman-Walker Health, another flagship center for LGBTQ health and wellness in the District. This has allowed Mautner to centralize its care and wellness programs at Whitman-Walker and capitalize on the trust and reach the organization has throughout the community.
But what makes lesbian health issues different from women’s health issues? “[Queer] women approach us saying, ‘I can’t safely, confidently, or intelligently receive services,’” Magrini explains. “And folks who are not accessing breast and GYN care, who may feel uncomfortable because they are butch-identified or trans-identified, they are also probably not getting their blood pressure checked or other standard ‘well-person’ care.”
Meghan Davies, director of community health for Whitman-Walker, says that the staff of the Mautner Project at Whitman-Walker is uniquely suited to serve its clients. “We understand the barriers and know the questions to ask and not to ask,” she says. “It’s very difficult, for example, to get trans men in for breast exams and pap tests, and some of that is the language. They don’t call it a ‘breast’ or a ‘vagina,’ and we’re not going to, either.”
Another issue Mautner pushes is safe-sex practices—yes, even for lesbians.
“You can’t make assumptions,” says Magrini. “Most women in my [lesbian] circle of friends and in my experience have had partners of both genders at some point in their lives. But sex with a man is not the only way a lesbian can contract an STD.” She notes that herpes and HPV are especially transmittable through lesbian sex. “We need to be having conversations in an effective way about safer sex practices—comfortably and knowledgeably.”