Grantee Profile

CALLEN-LORDE: A non-traditional community health clinic

The waiting room is painted dusky blue and the window-lined walls admit a soft light. Photographs of and quotations by the organization’s namesakes serve as decorations, empowering patients to take their health into their own hands. A fish tank hums quietly in the corner, pop music plays from a boom box on the window ledge, and posters and pamphlets offer subtle clues to patients—hints that this community accepts them no matter what. Appointments are in high demand; the average wait time for a new patient is 40 days. And Channel 4 just finished an interview with the organization’s Director of Medical Services, Dr. Dawn Harbatkin. This is a community health clinic. But it is not a traditional one.

Callen Lorde waiting room

Callen-Lorde's waiting room is designed to be a
welcoming place for all patients.
Photo by Julia Connors.

The Michael Callen-Audre Lorde Community Health Center serves New York’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population. The nation’s first LGBT Federally Qualified Health Center, Callen-Lorde is modeled after a private clinic. Unlike a typical community health center, each incoming patient sits down with a Patient Account Associate and chooses a permanent primary care physician based on specialties and personality. “Our services are based on a one-on-one relationship between patient and care provider,” Dr. Harbatkin says.

Located in Chelsea, a hotspot for the city’s LGBT community, Callen-Lorde is a full-service clinic, assisting 9,000 patients each year. The clinic offers several medical programs, including HIV services, HOTT: Health Outreach to Teens, Mental Health, Dental, Transgender Health, and the Lesbian Health Program. Of men served, 80% identify as gay or bisexual, while only 60% of the women do; 40% of the women identify as straight. Dr. Harbatkin attributes this disparity to the clinic’s strength as a gynecological care provider: “We offer non-judgmental, affordable, quality services. We deal a lot with sexuality here, and that is a sensitive issue regardless of orientation.” Dr. Harbatkin continues, “We think of this clinic as a place of safety. Many of our patients have encountered extreme homophobia, or a lack of knowledge of issues pertaining to LGBT people in the medical community. We offer sensitivity.”

With the help of Komen funding, Callen-Lorde offers breast health services as part of its Lesbian Health Program. While large-scale studies on the prevalence of breast cancer in lesbian women have not been conducted, as a group, lesbians are at a higher risk than the general population of developing breast cancer for several reasons: they are less likely to bear children, exhibit higher levels of alcohol use, smoking and obesity, and are less likely to be screened. Transgender patients, who make up 5% of Callen-Lorde’s patients, have a particularly difficult barrier to breast care because there are no screening guidelines for them. Most free screening facilities do not offer mammograms for transgender patients, but Callen-Lorde’s staff manages to find places that will, Dr. Harbatkin says.

Callen-Lorde holds affiliations with several of the area’s screening facilities, including the Columbia University Breast Health Screening Partnership and Beth Israel Medical Center. In the last year, the clinic has offered an on-site mammography van every other month through the Women’s Outreach Network. The van has proved a success: “We never had the numbers of women necessary to have our own screening facility, but the appointments for the van are always full,” says Tsuh Yang Chen, Director of Institutional Giving.

Alesia Exum has been a patient at Callen-Lorde for nearly 14 years. A photographer and artist, Alesia says: “I feel very at home. There is a different energy. It’s more personal.” After moving to New York from her native Georgia, Alesia learned of the health center by word of mouth within the gay community. Because she does not have insurance, Callen-Lorde’s sliding payment scale allows her to access high quality care at an affordable price.

Gynecologist Carla Waldron and Noina Marrero, MA  
  review patient records.

Gynecologist Carla Waldron and Noina Marrero,
MA review patient records. Photo by Julia Connors.

When a woman comes to Callen-Lorde for a routine gynecological exam, her doctor performs a clinical breast exam, teaches her how to administer a breast self-exam, and talks about the importance of breast health. Two years ago, a lump was discovered in Alesia’s breast during an annual physical. The doctor immediately referred her to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for a mammogram and sonogram. Luckily, the lump turned out to be a benign cyst, but Alesia continues to be able to access annual mammograms. Pleased with the care she receives at Callen-Lorde, Alesia says, “There is a genuine sense of community and family there. They always want to help. Everyone from the receptionist to the doctors is really kind and really positive.”

In addition to providing medical services, Callen-Lorde conducts a major summer outreach initiative. Participating in eight LGBT pride events throughout the city, representatives from Callen-Lorde set up information tables and distribute literature specifically customized for the LGBT community on a variety of health topics, including breast and gynecological health, HIV and hepatitis.

The clinic also provides educational outreach to medical and nursing students, concentrating on sensitivity training. “People want to know what they can do to make the LGBT population feel more comfortable,” Dr. Harbatkin says. “We tell them to put out a brochure. People are looking for subtle clues that they are in a safe place.”

Callen-Lorde’s overarching goal is probably just as non-traditional as the services it provides; with hopes that the LGBT community will not feel the need for a specific clinic dedicated to their needs in the future—that their needs will be met within traditional medical settings—Dr. Harbatkin admits: “We want to be obsolete.”

By Julia Connors
March/April 2005

For more information on these programs and services, please contact Callen-Lorde Community Health Center:

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