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Columbus Welcomes First Transgender Wellness Center In Ohio

Paige Pfleger
Luster Singleton, Mikayla Robinson, and Cory Frederick stand in front of Mozaic in Columbus.

Mozaic, Ohio’s first standalone transgender and gender non-conforming health and community center, officially opens its doors Friday.

The center is sandwiched between a few bars on Summit Street, east of The Ohio State University.

“When you drive past, you’ll see an ice frosted window that says 'Mozaic' on it,” says Mikayla Robinson, the center's engagement specialist. She points out a sign that reads “Free HIV testing” before heading inside.

The space is a cross between a funky '80s apartment and a modern doctor’s office – there are a few couches gathered around a TV, a kitchen, a small stage and a few exam rooms. Robinson wears a sash that says "Miss Gay Ohio" and matches the brightly colored walls.

“Whatever’s going on within your day, and whatever’s going on within your life, you’ll come in and leave bright, encouraged and inspired,” Robinson says.

Mozaic, a program of Equitas Health, received $1.9 million from the CDC as part of a five-year grant to reduce the spread of HIV among young transgender people of color. It’s the only grantee in Ohio, one of only five in the Midwest, and one of 30 nationally.

“They realize we’re here to help the community and lessen the numbers, and help make sure that everybody is having a greater chance at greater health,” she says.

According to the CDC, the percentage of transgender people diagnosed with HIV annually is three times the national average. The majority of people living with HIV in Ohio and in Franklin County are people of color.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Inside the Mozaic health and community center.

There are other transgender health resources in Ohio, but most of them are part of a larger health systems. And, unlike Mozaic, they aren’t open for HIV testing every weekday.

Along with free testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, Mozaic offers safe sex supplies, mentoring, and resources for transgender people experiencing homelessness. In Ohio, a third of the transgender population has experienced homelessness at some point, and 28 percent said they avoided staying in a shelter because they feared mistreatment.

“Really, the reason that this program exists is because of the health disparities that exist within the trans community, nationwide,” says Cory Frederick, Mozaic’s program director.

Frederick is African American and transgender, and is intimately familiar with some of the challenges facing the transgender community.

According to one survey, about a third of transgender people in Ohio reported they didn’t get health care when they needed it because they couldn’t afford it. A third also reported having a bad experience when they did decide to seek care.

“As transgender, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary people, there aren’t… I can’t think of any places actually where you can just open the door and know that you’re not going to have to explain yourself to the people who are inside,” Frederick says.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Mikayla Robinson looks at paperwork inside Mozaic's exam room.

Transgender and gender non-binary people often report being called by the incorrect names or pronouns in health care settings. Sometimes there isn’t an option to correctly document their preferred gender identity in medical paperwork, which means there isn’t much data on health challenges facing their community.

Mozaic looks to challenge that over the course of their five-year grant by keeping better track of how people identify.

“It’s a historic moment right here,” says head of outreach Luster Singleton. “I don’t know if Columbus understands, I don’t know if the community really understands how historical this is, especially in this political climate.

Singleton has been involved in Columbus’ LGBTQ community for decades. He says he’s emotional each morning when he opens Mozaic’s doors, because the space neighbors a bar where he first met another transgender person in the 1990s.

“There were so many folks that would fall underneath the transgender umbrella that found safety in that bar,” Singleton says. “And so, I just am like, wow, this is… I feel like we should have a plaque or something out here, mayor!”

Singleton hopes that Mozaic may become a new safe haven for transgender and non binary people in Columbus.

Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.