In honor of Pride Month, Sarah McCarthy, Ph.D., the first talented Professor of Health Studies at Magic City LGBTQ, reflects on the ongoing need for health equity for LGBTQ communities, why addressing LGBTQ health is beneficial for all and its goals for the future.
Written by: Maria White
Media contact: Hannah Echols
On December 1, 2021, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health named Sarah McCarthy, Ph.D., as the first recipient of the Magic City for LGBT Health Studies. This community-funded professorship was created to create a high-visibility platform to support research, education, and service in the field of LGBTQ health. The professorship at Magic City is the first of its kind in the country—particularly meaningful in the Deep South, where LGBT people in particular have limited access to quality services, despite experiencing a range of health problems.
Why are LGBTQ communities particularly vulnerable?
Over the course of life, LGBTQ communities experience multiple layers of reinforcing marginalization that affect the way they live, work and play. For example, LGBTQ teens, who may be isolated from their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have higher rates of homelessness or precarious housing. This often contributes to poor attendance at school, which makes it difficult to complete education. Lack of education makes it difficult to find a job. Once on the job, safeguards against discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity are limited in Alabama.
These experiences contribute to everyday stressors that “get under our skin” over time and affect our health. Even an LGTBQ individual who has insurance and can get care may have a negative experience with the provider, leading to a reluctance to have regular medical appointments and exams. Older LGBT people face additional barriers in allowing their partners and “chosen families” to be included in difficult end-of-life decisions. These experiences of stigma and discrimination are exacerbated over the course of life, and are associated with higher rates of chronic and infectious diseases.
In an effort to act as a leader in tackling LGBT inequality, the University of Oklahoma School of Public Health created the Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies professorship in early 2017. Nearly 10 months after moving from Los Angeles to Birmingham, McCarthy feels With enthusiasm to celebrate for the first time Pride Month in the Deep South. Here, she reflects on the ongoing need for health equity for LGBTQ communities, why addressing LGBTQ health is beneficial to all and its goals for the future.
New position, new goals
The Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies Professorship consists of three core components: research, education, training, and community partnerships. These areas are distinct but deeply interconnected.
Community participatory research requires building relationships of trust with community organizations; Collaborate to identify their most pressing interests; developing research tools to document what is happening and to identify the best avenues for intervention; data collection and analysis; It then collaboratively disseminates the results through multiple channels, targeting specific populations they are meant to reach.
MacCarthy has begun new research collaborations with organizations across the state, while also highlighting LGBTQ-related research and activities already occurring at UAB. Actively seeks grant opportunities that will enhance the relationships it builds with local organizations, thereby crafting a research portfolio focused on addressing the most pressing health inequities expressed by LGBTQ Alabamians themselves.
MacCarthy’s teaching and training activities include developing a LGBTQ curriculum at all levels of education that integrates knowledge (eg, LGBTQ health inequality) and skills (eg, how to advocate for LGBTQ communities). The overarching goal is to establish that training in the League of Arab States and build capacity to deal with LGBT health that will be more advanced and modern than training elsewhere.
Over the past seven months, MacCarthy has been actively building relationships with LGBTQ-focused communities not only within the UAB, but in Birmingham, across the state and across the region. It views strengthening these relationships as a way to highlight at the local and national level the degree to which UAB is already involved in LGBTQ research and practice while expanding its support network to expand and enhance existing LGTBQ-related work.
For example, she’s collaborating with a UAB student working with the Magic City Admissions Academy to conduct a survey to assess a range of health outcomes. The plan is to build on a current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey to explore the differences over time between charter school and national estimates to assess whether and how providing an LGBTQ-emphasizing school environment can improve health. In the Southwest Alabama Inclusion Project, multiple groups are organizing to conduct an assessment of the needs of LGBT adults and youth in Mobile, Baldwin, and surrounding counties. MacCarthy works with them to balance methods and their budget to develop an approach that engages all LGBTQ people in the area.
MacCarthy notes that through her experience as a researcher and advocate to address the unique needs of LGBTQ communities both locally and globally, she has learned that time and trust are essential to successful community participatory research. Thus, it works to build these essential relationships by listening, learning about challenges and opportunities, and integrating research and practice to meet the needs identified by the organizations that have been involved in this work themselves for a long time. She uses her research skills to connect organizations that serve marginalized groups with financial resources to help improve the work they already do.
“We are very fortunate to have Dr. McCarthy serving at Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies who was awarded the professorship,” said Paul Irwin, MD, MD, dean of the UAB School of Public Health. “Having a conferred professorship – which is a really cool feat – is one thing entirely – but it is quite another to have someone of Dr. McCarthy’s stature leading this work here. We see this as a watershed moment for the health and well-being of the LGBTQ communities in Alabama.”
The month of pride and the future
In 1979, nine years after the first Pride parades were held in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the first Pride celebration, known as a Day in the Park, was held in Birmingham. According to the Special Collections of the University of Alabama Libraries, this gathering later grew to include a pride parade and became a week of events known as the Central Alabama Pride. When asked about the anticipation of her first Pride Month in the Deep South, McCarthy said she is very excited to connect with community partners and see the ways people celebrate here, where people can dress and express themselves however they want.
McCarthy continued, “I’m learning that, here in Alabama, to be a person in the LGBTQ community, or to be an advocate for that community, you had to fight really hard for that, and there’s an incredible grit to that. I’m excited to celebrate the LGBTQ community — yeah , for June, but also beyond.”
Looking to the future, McCarthy says she considers herself a facilitator, building on the years of work that advocates, allies, and researchers have completed that led to the creation of Magic City LGBTQ Health Studies awarding professorships and the founding of statewide LGBTQ organizations. In her words, she is riding on the hands of decades of regulation contributing to a unique moment, enabling her to highlight both the valuable contributions and the rich promise of LGBTQ-related efforts.