“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This is the quote that Dr. Alexis Chavez revisits when she needs inspiration. It’s a reminder for her to keep fighting. It also provides comfort when she’s tired, because sleep is not something that Chavez knows a lot about.
Chavez works as a self proclaimed “mild-mannered psychiatrist by day,” specializing in the LGBTQ population, especially queer youth. But most of her work in the community falls outside of her nine-to-five job.
Rather than rest, Chavez spends her time doing trainings on curriculum developments for therapists for the LGBTQ community to make them more competent. She’s creating new curriculum to make therapists more trans-competent. She sits on the board of directors at The Center. She gives trainings at different hospitals in the area. She’s the treasurer of the national orginzation of LGBTQ psychiatrists. She’s on the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Issues Committee at ACAP, a national organization of child psychiatrists. She’s on the council of research at the American Psychiatric Association.
“I probably spend at least the equivalent of two more jobs’ worth of time on extracurriculars,” she said. “I spend 60 to 80 hours a week doing things in LGBTQ advocacy work or trainings, but we always find time for the things that are really important to us.
“For me, this is one of the most important things in my life,” Chavez continued. “I sacrifice a lot for it. I sacrifice free time. I sacrifice time with friends and family. I sacrifice personal time, and when people ask me what my hobbies are, my answer is simple—LGBTQ advocacy, training, and research. This is what I do.”
Her passion for the LGBTQ community stems from both experience and empathy.
As a trans woman, Chavez has experienced discrimination from many people in her life, including healthcare providers. Even during periods when she had insurance, she sometimes couldn’t use it because anything dealing with trans health was denied thanks to an exclusionary clause. Some insurance companies even took it the extreme and refused to cover primary care visits.
At the same time, Chavez recognizes her privilege.
Chavez grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in a very conservative, very religious community “that wasn’t conducive to people that are sexual or gender minorities.” For her undergrad, she didn’t wander too far and graduated from Kansas University with two majors and a minor in four short years. She trekked across the country and landed in Washington D.C. for a while where she worked on research at the National Institute of Health on childhood schizophrenia. She made her way up the coast to Boston for medical school, took a year off and worked at an art center, graduated with a doctorate, and eventually found a residency here at CU Health with Dr. Robert Davies.
“With all of the privilege that I have—I’m white; I’m a doctor; I’m very versed in the healthcare system—with all the privilege that I have, I can’t even navigate healthcare. How is a trans person of color, who is going to have more difficulties obtaining employment because of discrimination, going to do this?” Chavez said.
During her time at CU Health, Chavez was already working on ways to make competent healthcare available to the mental health community. Alongside Davies and a few other residents, Chavez helped set the foundation and open the doors of the Imagine Clinic, an LGBTQ Mental Health Clinic.
Imagine Clinic was the first of its kind in Colorado, providing comprehensive psychiatric evaluations, pre-gender confirmation surgery evaluations, psychiatric medication management, individual and group therapy, and wellness assessments and referrals. In the few short years since its doors officially opened, Imagine Clinic has become a hub for queer folks in Colorado.
“I really wanted to do give back to the LGBT community and make sure they were getting the help they deserved,” Chavez said. “Mental health is a big issue in our community, and I want to make sure everyone is on the same page about how to treat LGBT people—especially our youth.”
According to the National Alliance of Mental Health, LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely to experience a mental health condition, such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. Fear of coming out and being discriminated against for sexual orientation and gender identities can lead to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, thoughts of suicide, and substance abuse.
For LGBTQ people aged 10 to 24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely, and questioning youth are three times more likely, to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harm than straight people. Between 38 to 65 percent of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation.
An estimated 20 to 30 percent of LGBTQ people abuse substances, and 25 percent of queer people abuse alcohol.
There’s still no sleep in sight for Chavez.
She’s going to continue travelling and training throughout Colorado. She’s co-authoring a book about depression in LGBTQ youth. She’s working with One Colorado to evaluate how trans competent Colorado’s upcoming legislation is. She’s working with The Center to roll out LGBTQ-competent trainings. And right now, Chavez is putting together a grant proposal to start a study measuring the brain development in trans youth taking hormone and puberty suppression therapies.
“We know that these are treatments that are definitely needed for these kids, but we don’t know all of the effects it has. I think it’s something important we should be focusing on,” Chavez said. “Each of us have to ask what is important to us. Once we figure out what that is, fight for it. Forget about the barriers. Forget about who is going to try and stop you. Forget when people tell you it won’t work. Just go out and do it.”
Photos by Jeremiah Corder