Ohio’s first transgender and gender non-conforming health and community center is a cross between a funky '80s apartment and a modern doctor’s office.
There are a few couches gathered around a TV, a kitchen, a small stage and a few exam rooms. Mikayla Robinson, the center's engagement specialist, wears a "Miss Gay Ohio" sash, which matches the brightly colored walls.
“Whatever’s going on within your day, and whatever’s going on within your life, you’ll come in and leave bright, encouraged and inspired,” Robinson says while giving a tour of the space.
The center, called Mozaic, received $1.9 million from the CDC as part of a five-year grant to reduce the spread of HIV among young transgender people of color. It’s the only grantee in Ohio, one of only five in the Midwest, and one of 30 nationally.
According to the CDC, the percentage of transgender people diagnosed with HIV annually is three times the national average. The majority of people living with HIV in Ohio and in Franklin County are people of color.
“They realize we’re here to help the community and lessen the numbers and help make sure that everybody is having a greater chance at greater health,” Robinson says.
There are other transgender health resources in Ohio, but most of them are part of larger health systems. And, unlike Mozaic, they aren’t open for HIV testing every weekday.
Along with free testing for HIV and for sexually transmitted infections, Mozaic offers safe sex supplies, mentoring and resources for transgender people experiencing homelessness. In Ohio, a third of the transgender population has experienced homelessness at some point, and 28 percent said they avoided staying in a shelter because they feared mistreatment.
“Really, the reason that this program exists is because of the health disparities that exist within the trans community, nationwide,” says Cory Frederick, Mozaic’s program director.
According to one survey, about a third of transgender people in Ohio reported they didn’t get health care when they needed it because they couldn’t afford it. A third also reported having a bad experience when they did decide to seek care.
“As transgender, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary people, there aren’t … I can’t think of any places actually where you can just open the door and know that you’re not going to have to explain yourself to the people who are inside,” Frederick says.
Transgender and gender non-binary people often report being called by the incorrect names or pronouns in health care settings. Sometimes there isn’t an option to correctly document their preferred gender identity in medical paperwork, which means there isn’t much data on health challenges facing their community.
Mozaic looks to change that over the course of their five-year grant by keeping better track of how people identify.
“It’s a historic moment right here,” says head of outreach Luster Singleton. “I don’t know if Columbus understands. I don’t know if the community really understands how historical this is, especially in this political climate."
Singleton has been involved in Columbus’ LGBTQ community for decades. He says he’s emotional each morning when he opens Mozaic’s doors, because the space neighbors a bar where he first met another transgender person in the 1990s.
“There were so many folks that would fall underneath the transgender umbrella that found safety in that bar,” Singleton says. “So, I just am like, wow, this is … I feel like we should have a plaque or something out here, mayor!”
Singleton hopes that Mozaic may become a new safe haven for transgender and non binary people in Columbus.