Travis Henke last saw his father when he was eight years old.
Travis, 31 now, hasn’t heard from his father – a transgender person who transitioned to female when Travis was young – since. He believes she is probably dead.
But that person — and the discrimination and difficult life she experienced as a transgender person — has come to have a profound effect on Travis’s life. And what he wants to do with it.
After working for nine years in construction after high school, Travis decided three years ago to go back to school, to eventually become a physician and a public health researcher. His aim: to provide clinical care to transgender people while doing research on transgender issues.
Travis remembers seeing the discrimination his father faced 25 years ago in his hometown of Port Angeles, Wash. He learned later from his mother about much more. Being transgender was viewed as a mental disorder. His father, an architect who had designed many of the newer buildings in Port Angeles, lost her job and couldn’t find work. Her primary care doctor refused to treat her. Eventually, she had to go to Mexico for medical treatment.
“I see doing this work as an opportunity to make sure no one has to experience the same thing,” Travis says. If, years ago, more people like him cared to explore and better understand transgender issues, “maybe it would have been different for my father,” he says. “And that’s enough for me to do it.”
What his father — and both his parents — went through 25 years ago had a deep effect on Travis’s childhood.
His father came out as transgender in 1990, when Travis was five. He’d sometimes see his father sitting around the house in a dress. Even at that age, Travis came to understand what was happening at some level. “The way my parents handled it really set me up to understand it better and be more accepting of it,” he says.
But those outside his family were not accepting, he says. “As a five-year-old, I understood the situation but nobody else did,” he says. “And that was really frustrating.” His father’s coming out also led to his parents’ divorce, which was difficult for Travis. And when his mother, his younger sister and he moved to Vancouver, Wash., the family struggled financially. “We grew up dirt poor after that,” Travis says.
There also were positives that came from everything that happened in his childhood, Travis says. “I don’t know if I’d be as socially aware of other things if it weren’t for that experience,” he says.
But it wasn’t until after high school that Travis really started thinking more about transgender issues, and that “nothing like this is going to get resolved until people are more comfortable talking about it,” he says.
After several years as a pipefitter in construction, Travis decided he knew what he wanted to do with his life — working in transgender clinical care and research.
He entered the undergraduate health sciences program at the School of Public Health in 2014. He expects to graduate in 2018. He is now applying to enter OHSU’s M.D. program, and also hopes to enter the Master of Public Health program at the School of Public Health.
During his time as an undergraduate, Travis has become more involved in transgender research and advocacy. After discovering the lack of research in transgender issues, he proposed and is conducting his own needs assessment of the transgender community in the Portland area, with help from Alexis Dinno, an associate professor of Community Health at the School of Public Health. He’s also become a member of the OHSU Transgender Health Program Committee.
Travis says he’s learned that medical care and research for the transgender community often isn’t much better than 25 years ago. “Transgender health is completely unrepresented in medicine right now,” he says.
He hopes to someday have an impact on transgender health in three areas — clinical care, research and advocating for policy changes that can help the transgender population.
He says the School of Public Health — including Dinno’s willingness to volunteer to provide her expert help on the needs assessment — “has been invaluable for me. The progress I’ve made as a student would not have happened without the School of Public Health.”
It also wouldn’t have happened without scholarships and other financial support, Travis says.
That’s why he was excited to learn about the School of Public Health’s Dean’s Scholarship Fund, which will provide support to allow students from lower-income families and from diverse backgrounds to enter programs within the school.
A broader range of students, from a range of backgrounds, is vital to the future of pubic health work, Travis says. “Those are the people’s experiences we need to hear about,” he says. “Those are the people who really can contribute to public health. Because they have the lived experiences — the kind of experiences we need to help shape public health.”