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The effect of youth gender, sexual identity on healthcare

a young man in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck posing outside

Max Kelly

Carlton “Max” Kelly, an undergraduate human biology health and society major and research assistant with ACT for Youth, won the Public Health Education and Health Promotion (PHEHP) Student Award from the American Public Health Association for his paper on how fluid gender and sexual identity affect young people’s sexual health care experiences.

Kelly used a $1,000-grant from Engaged Cornell to fund the research. The idea for the project arose through his work with ACT for Youth, which was exploring the reasons behind high rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among adolescents in New York State.

Kelly knew that when it comes to gender and sexual orientation, many adolescents are rejecting identity labels, perceiving gender and sexual identities as more fluid than fixed. He wanted to hear from LGBTQ youth about how this fluidity was affecting their sexual health care, and get their ideas about how health care providers can improve their approach to serving LGBTQ youth.

“I found that sexual fluidity presented itself in a variety of ways for both identity and behavior,” Kelly said. “Because fluidity creates a discrepancy between behavior and identity, sexual health questioning and sexual health referrals may be insufficient to meet the needs of queer patients. Furthermore, healthcare providers should offer comprehensive information for their patients regardless of their disclosed identities.”

Jane Powers, director of ACT for Youth, said Kelly’s work will ultimately help young people in the state of New York.

“At ACT for Youth, we work with many youth-serving agencies who are funded by the New York State Department of Health to promote adolescent health and prevent sexually transmitted infections,” she said. “They tell us that healthcare providers are seeing gender fluidity among their younger clients and do not know what to make of it. Max went directly to young people to find out about their experiences and get their advice. In turn, we at ACT for Youth will do all we can to get this information to the professionals who can put this knowledge to use. Ultimately, Max’s work will, we hope, help health care providers better understand and serve their adolescent patients.”

Kelly plans to continue conducting qualitative research through the Rural Humanities Program and ACT for Youth. After he graduates from Cornell in the spring, he hopes to explore a career in community health.