Kelly Shortandqueer has been a staple in Denver's creative community for over a decade. As a co-founder of the Denver Zine Library, a square dancer with the Rocky Mountain Rainbeaus, a victims' advocate for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program and, most recently, an award-winning drag queen, he has no shortage of ambitious projects under his belt. But using Colorado nondiscrimination law to win insurance coverage for his April 2013 chest surgery has been a landmark victory in equal rights-access for transgender people across the state. In advance of Shortandqueer's free July 23 workshop on his win at the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, Westword caught up with him to discuss the Denver Zine Library's move, storytelling and the future of transgender health access.
Westword: Talk about your creative work and all the things you've been up to lately.
Kelly Shortandqueer: I'm one of the co-founders, volunteers and zine librarians at the Denver Zine Library. We've been around a little over ten years and have a collection of over 15,000 zines. We just moved to a new location at 2400 Curtis Street. We're not quite open yet, but we will be announcing our grand opening very shortly. I am a volunteer with the Colorado Anti-Violence Program and will be doing a workshop Wednesday about transgender-inclusive health care. I write zines. My zine is called Shortandqueer, and I have seventeen issues currently. I square dance with The Rocky Mountain Rainbeaus, which is an LGBTQ square dance club in Denver. Through that, as part of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs, I was just crowned Honey-Tonk Queen at our annual convention in Salt Lake City last weekend.
Talk about your workshop for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program.
In April of 2013, I had chest reconstruction, or top surgery. At the time, I had been denied insurance coverage by my insurance provider, which was not surprising to me. I ended up embarking on an appeals process and working to fight the decision and ultimately ended up winning and having top surgery covered, which is amazing.
Because people have such a low expectation around health care, a lot of people don't take that first step to actually access it. For those of us who do, to some extent, when we're being denied coverage, it's not surprising. It's been exciting that recently there has been a shift in terms of coverage access. It involves a lot of self-advocacy and community advocacy. This workshop coming up is just an opportunity for me to share my experience. Though there is not going to be a how-to checklist, hopefully it will start building skills in the community about how to do this work. Talk about what that process of self-advocacy looked like for you. I was really lucky to have some advocates who could help me navigate all of it. I'm someone who feels fairly well-resourced. I used to run a crisis hotline at the Colorado Anti-Violence Program. I have a lot of training around crisis intervention and advocacy. I was surprised by how difficult it still felt to be on the side of having to do that for myself. I think that having other folks who were able to help walk through the process and explain things, whether that was being able to answer questions or just offer moral support, I think that's really helpful. There was some accountability piece for me doing it and having other people involved in the process that had me on track.
Were you doing your advocacy through letters or conversations?
I met with a few folks in person who were able to walk me through the process, in terms of filing complains and what agencies I should be reaching out to. I also had someone, through my work, who was able to help me figure out what the process looked like in terms of appealing with my own insurance company. A lot of that was done through e-mail.
I had a high deductible plan. When I assumed that I wouldn't get coverage, I went ahead and paid out of pocket. Once I went through the appeals process, what ended up happening is that my initial appeal was denied. Then because of some of the other complaints that I had done, there was an investigation. Ultimately, I argued that denying me coverage is in violation of Colorado's nondiscrimination statute and through the investigation, they overturned the denial and decided to cover the procedure.
The tricky part beyond all of that was then having to go through and deal with all of the reimbursements and figure out how much they owed, because I had paid to multiple providers. Again, that was another piece that I hadn't thought about, that once I won the appeal, I'd have to navigate that next piece around the reimbursements.
How does this case impact other people's cases in Colorado?
It's a little bit unclear how my case impacts other cases in Colorado. I'm under the understanding that several insurance parties are actually looking at their policies now. Because I argued my case around Colorado statute, from my understanding, it will be limited to Colorado. My hope is to be able to set a precedent here that insurance companies will take across the country. I'm not sure exactly how that will play out, because it seems like policy change within insurance companies is going to be a long, long process, even if the intention is good.
Read on for more from Kelly Shortandqueer.
Where is the health-care industry in terms of transgender issues?
I think that trans people have such mixed reactions based on the provider, their reputation, what's going on. I've had both amazing experiences and hard experiences. I feel really lucky to have a primary-care provider who is very familiar with providing care to the transgender community. I feel like I'm able to get the care I need and the questions I get asked are relevant to the reasons that I go in.
I had an experience when I was visiting back East. I had sprained my ankle, and I ended up having an urgent-care provider basically grilling me about how I was able to grow facial hair, which had nothing to do with my sprained ankle. I understand that person was not really well-resourced, but it felt like a totally inappropriate way to spend my time having to educate a provider who seemed to have no idea how hormones or secondary sex characteristics work.
I know people who have been denied care. There is still a wide range in terms of what people are able to access. Because there are so many negative stories within the community and knowing that a lot of that spreads via word of mouth around who is safe and who is unsafe, a lot of trans people still aren't even necessarily accessing the care they need because of all the stigma and all the stories of people having negative experiences with providers. Talk about how your experience navigating this will impact your work as a storyteller.
As a storyteller, I am pretty public about my life and try to share those experiences with people. Even though I'm not in an advocacy position anymore, I've been trying to find ways to tell my story and share my experiences in a way that will be helpful to other people. When I do most of my storytelling, I try to make it relevant and entertaining. The workshop that I'm doing with CAVP is a place where I thought that if I tell my story and name my experience, that may be helpful to other people. Again, it won't necessarily be a checklist of how to go through it. It will be different depending on who your provider is, assuming you have insurance and what type of plan you have. I think there is something powerful, when we do have successes, in being able to create a base of knowledge and to create a community that can help advocate and hold each other accountable to that process. Talk about what it was like to go through the process and win?
In a lot of ways, I'm actually shocked it was not a more painful process than I expected it to be. I will say, it was a long process from start to finish. It was really frustrating and involved a lot of phone calls.
I'm super organized and have a binder with all of my documents. When I would have phone calls and they would give me a different answer, I would be able to refer back to my process and to other calls. I think without having all of that different information, it would be so easy to get derailed and have other people take over. Having gone through that step by step and staying on top of it, when it moved into a place of actually winning the case, there was something really surreal about it.
I had actually received a denial letter within the same week I received another one that said, oh, never mind, we're actually overturning that denial. Within a series of days, I had to sit down and decide if I was going to do a second-level appeal. How am I going to build up the emotional energy to make these phone calls and who was I was going to reach out to?
It was a success when the letter came through. It was almost unreal that it was happening. I hope to be able to share that with people in the hopes that my case was only the first of many.
It's amazing to see anyone successfully navigate the healthcare system. A case like this could begin to set some precedents.
It feels really exciting to be a part of that history. There will have to be a lot of us creating a space to navigate this.
In terms of your work as a zine librarian, are there specific texts or stories that inspired you? In terms of zines, there are lots of trans folks who are documenting stories about their lives and that has been instrumental to me in terms of my own transition and my own social and emotional growth, in terms of finding people who have similar experiences or different experiences that inform how I talk about my identity, especially publicly. There were some zines that were specifically around people's experiences with surgery and navigating things that weren't necessarily health-care specific. One of the things that I'm planning on doing, and I need to just find the motivation to sit down and do it, is to document my process. I already have a bunch written.
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Some of it is about my emotional process about how I made my decision to have top surgery, what that looked like, about choosing a surgeon and all of that. But also, before I had surgery, I reached out to a number of people asking for suggestions about recovery and healing and compiling information that I've gotten from other people who have transitioned and had top surgery to other people who had double mastectomies related to breast cancer. There was such an outpouring of knowledge and resources. I want to be able to compile that in a way to be able to share them with other people. Kelly Shortandqueer's Transgender-Inclusive Healthcare Workshop will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 23, at the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, 4130 Tejon Street. Admission is free; for more information, go to the event's Facebook page.