Syd Staggs works to create a world more accepting of allAug 19, 2021
At a very early age, Syd Staggs felt isolated in their conservative Colorado community in a family that they describe as “traditional Catholic Italian-Americans.” Now 27, Syd recalls not having the words as a young kid to describe their gender identity, but it was clear they were different from other peers.
“I never fit in with other girls,” Syd recalled, “there was no LGBTQ+ representation where I lived.” Nor did questioning the status quo and established roles win any points. It was a lonely place to be.
Refusing to accept Staggs’s LGBTQ+ status—they identify today as transmasculine, queer, and neuroatypical—their family kicked them out of the house at 17. This harsh move, however, opened new doors. Staggs received early admission to the University of Colorado Denver and assistance with finding housing from an advisor—who also identified as LGBTQ+. Staggs realized that in Denver they had found a never before realized place of acceptance.
“My sense of community was revitalized,” Staggs said. “My passion, creativity, and empathy were actively encouraged by the queer community that I found when I moved to Denver. I chose my family, essentially.”
Today, Syd continues their education and is on track to earn their Masters in Public Health (MPH) from the Maternal & Child Health program at the Colorado School of Public Health while continuing to work as a professional research assistant (PRA) with Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHCO). Their career has been devoted to helping other LGBTQ+ individuals gain the same sense of acceptance and affirmation that they did.
In recognition of that work, Staggs was named the recipient of the inaugural CU Anschutz Graduate School Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award in May 2021. The award highlights programs and trainings that Staggs has created to improve the experiences of LGBTQ+ faculty, students, and staff on campus and to help others understand and celebrate their experience.
Much of Staggs’s work occurred as a board member of the Gender Diversity Task Force—now Spectrum ALLYance—at CHCO. The work comprised the practicum/capstone project for their degree, a manuscript entitled “Instituting Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Training and Documentation to Increase Inclusivity at a Pediatric Health System” that is being published in the Transgender Journal of Health.
In one initiative, Staggs used a quality-improvement grant from CHCO, alongside Dr. Natalie Nokoff, a pediatric endocrinologist at the hospital, to collaborate with local LGBTQ+ artist Kenzie Sitterud on pronoun pins in English. Staggs also worked with Kacy Lamb, art director at CHCO, on the pins. The project included a handout explaining the importance of using pronouns, forging allies, and encouraging discussions about gender diversity. Some 5,000 pins and education materials were distributed across four Children’s Colorado campuses.
In a subsequent campaign, Staggs collaborated with CHCO medical interpreters and Unidos (CHCO Spanish-speaking team resource groups) to create Spanish/English pronoun pins and accompanying handouts in Spanish. The Rocky Mountain Public Health Training Center awarded Syd a Student Leader in Public Health Award to finance these efforts.
Staggs has also been at the forefront of developing and delivering practical training tools for CHCO team members. For example, they developed scripts for providers administering Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) forms to patients. The goal: create a format for asking questions about identity, sexual orientation, gender transition goals, organ inventories, and other potentially sensitive information in a gender-neutral and affirming way. These scripts avoid expectation, judgement, and outdated language and are now part of the hospital’s electronic health record.
“Clinicians find that it can be daunting to word things in a supportive way,” Staggs said, “but by doing so, you are supporting a gender diverse patient’s clinical experience as a provider and making it a more positive experience for them.”
A broader education effort by Staggs and their team, involved creating an online “Understanding Gender and Sexual Orientation” training for CHCO. Thus far, 16,000 team members have completed the coursework. Staggs also helped to film and edit interviews with gender-diverse patients and hospital team members as another way to help individuals understand and appreciate gender diversity.
Staggs was quick to note that they got plenty of support with their efforts from faculty and staff at CHCO “who want to learn. The culture of our campus is open and accepting.” Nokoff also served as a preceptor.
“We talked through the issues and hoops I would have to jump through to get hospital approvals,” Staggs added. “Dr. Nokoff was absolutely essential for all of these projects.”
Meanwhile, Staggs pursues a wide variety of other work and interests with one common denominator: helping those in need. In their job as a PRA, they work with transgender adolescents undergoing gender-affirming hormone therapy to ensure they receive a high standard of care during their transition, both clinically and emotionally.
“I establish open lines of communication with my patients,” Staggs said, “so they know they can tell me what they need and that their individual needs will be respected on their gender journey. I try to show people what health care should look like.”
Not to leave too much time unfilled, Staggs also volunteers in the community nearby the CU Anschutz Medical Campus as a care coordinator at the DAWN Clinic, a free, CU Anschutz interdisciplinary student-run healthcare facility for uninsured patients in the Aurora and Denver areas.
Staggs has also started a public health fellowship from the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program. In this year-long training, Staggs will work with and provide support for patients and families who have received diagnoses of autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions and develop more inclusive diagnostic criteria and treatment plans with clinical psychologists and other team members.
For Staggs, all of their work represents an effort to lend a hand to others struggling with the sense of isolation they once felt.
“I did not grow up in a very accepting home,” Staggs said. “I have a certain amount of privilege, being affiliated with these institutions, to reach out to people in my community and help them with care and resources.”
Story by Tyler Smith for the Colorado School of Public Health.