Rafaelle L 5 Years of Inclusive Care at Babs Siperstein PROUD Center

“Finding a place offering specific care for people like me is almost a guarantee I’ll be provided more respect and kindness. Feeling welcomed and included makes a big difference.”

Discovering a health center dedicated to the LGBTQIA population was as welcome as it was unexpected for Rafaelle Lozada.

Lozada, who identifies as gender fluid or trans femme, learned of Barbra “Babs” Casbar Siperstein, a noted New Jersey transgender leader and activist, while interning with coLAB Arts, an organization based in New Brunswick. That led Lozada to hear about the groundbreaking Babs Siperstein PROUD Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset, named in Siperstein’s memory after her death in 2019. “PROUD” stands for “Promoting Respect, Outreach, Understanding and Dignity.”

“Other places may offer services like support groups,” says Lozada, who works as an actor, customer service specialist and LGBTQIA-plus advocate. “But this was the only program I knew of that provided actual primary health care.”

A Pioneering Initiative

Founded in 2017, the PROUD Center was the first hospital program in New Jersey to offer services tailored to the LGBTQIA community in a safe, supportive environment. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the center provides services to adults and children including HIV care, hormone therapy and monitoring, health education, counseling, support groups and referrals for specialty services.

RWJUH Somerset has been nationally recognized for providing culturally competent care and reducing health care disparities. The Human Rights Campaign has honored the hospital as a Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality six years in a row.

“We opened the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center five years ago to provide professional and compassionate care to the LGBTQIA community in New Jersey, the needs of which were not being met in the state at the time,” says Tony Cava, President and Chief Executive Officer, RWJUH Somerset. “It’s been an honor to be able to provide specialized medical care to over 1,000 patients with the respect and dignity they deserve, and we are excited to continue to grow and serve this community for many years to come.”

Special Awareness

Lozada has benefited from numerous health services at the PROUD Center beginning in 2020, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication that helps prevent HIV infection, and a support group. “I’m being tested for STIs [sexually transmitted infections] on a more consistent basis than before,” Lozada says.

The center also has provided clarity about what it means to transition. “There are health risks that can come with making that decision,” Lozada says. “Center staff have educated me, and as a result, I’ve concluded I want to take my time when it comes to doing anything drastic.”

Heightened awareness of mental health issues makes care even more effective and inclusive, Lozada says. Research shows that members of the LGBTQIA community are more than twice as likely as heterosexual people to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime and to experience depression, anxiety and substance misuse. The RWJUH Somerset Behavioral Health Department now offers consults for PROUD patients from a dedicated therapist with experience serving the LGBTQIA community.

“People at the PROUD Center are educated about additional challenges a person might face just from identifying as part of this community,” Lozada says, including financial stress, threats of violence, transportation difficulties, lack of housing and high suicide rates.

“Anywhere you go, you face some kind of rejection or find people not as open if they notice your gender expression is not traditional,” Lozada says. “Finding a place offering specific care for people like me is almost a guarantee I’ll be provided more respect and kindness. Feeling welcomed and included makes a big difference.”

staff at the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center

Staff at the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center celebrate recently being honored as Organization of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers–New Jersey Chapter.

Proud Milestones

2017 - Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset opens PROUD Family Health—the first program of its kind in New Jersey. Beginning as a one-night-a-week clinic, the center serves over 200 patients in its first year.

2019 - Renamed the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center in memory of transgender activist Barbra “Babs” Casbar Siperstein, the center moves into a new space to accommodate a growing patient population.

2021 - TD Bank grants the center $150,000 to improve access to medical care for members of the LGBTQIA community with a focus on HIV prevention and mental health.

2022 - The PROUD Center serves more than 1,000 patients and is open five days a week.

Welcoming a Behavioral Health Specialist

Patients at the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center now have access to behavioral health services from a therapist dedicated to working with members of the LGBTQIA community.

Kim Keyes, LCSW, an outpatient behavioral health therapist, has 18 years of experience as a social worker helping children and families. Keyes is available five days a week for in-person and telehealth appointments.

“I’ve always had a special interest in working with the LGBTQIA community but recently decided to become more professionally involved, as I have a close family member who identifies as transgender,” she says. “I’m here to help support members of the LGBTQIA community throughout their journey, from exploring gender identity or sexual orientation to coming out to their friends and family and learning to live fully as their true selves, which may include developing coping skills or ways to build their personal support network. This is a safe space where they can find understanding and acceptance, and develop a plan to address the unique challenges they face.”

To learn more about the Babs Siperstein PROUD Center at RWJUH Somerset, call 855-776-8334.