Yesterday Andrew Sullivan linked to an item at WBUR’s Common Health blog, in which Dr. Mark Schuster, a tenured professor and pediatrician at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital tells his story of being a gay man entering the medical field. (Though I am also on staff at Children’s, I am not personally acquainted with Dr. Schuster.) I read it with deep interest, and I would recommend it to anyone who might find the subject interesting as well. In particular, I was fascinated by the ways in which his story parallels my own, and where they diverge.
The most obvious points of divergence are time and place. Dr. Schuster went to medical school at Harvard and did his residency at Children’s, starting in the early 80s. I went to medical school at a public university in the Midwest, starting about a decade later. I would have expected, given its reputation, that Harvard would have been a much more tolerant place, even at the time of Dr. Schuster’s matriculation. I was quite shocked to read of how rife with blatant homophobia it was. What a difference a decade makes. Though I encountered some difficulties because of my sexuality, none come close to what he describes. It makes me grateful to have been born when I was.
The medical school that I attended drew its students from all over my home state. Many were from very rural areas. I remember attending a talk at our dorm about life as a gay person (I was not yet out at the time), and hearing a couple of them snigger slurs when they walked by the room where it was being held. The details of my coming out are not the kind of thing I am inclined to discuss in a forum such as this, but suffice it to say that I did so without nearly as much trouble as I would have expected at school during my second year there. When I came out, I became the only gay person a large number of my classmates knew. (Or, perhaps more accurately, knew that they knew.) Realizing this, it became very important to me to “represent” gay people well, to be as “just-folks” as possible. (To a great extent, this experience has informed how I approach similar issues today.) Perhaps I am naive to believe it, but by the end of medical school I felt that I was treated just the same as anyone else, and my gayness was incidental to the opinions that my colleagues had about me.
That said, shortly after I came out one of my clinical mentors asked to meet with me. He was a radiologist, and had been friendly with the group of medical students under his tutelage that included me. It was around about the time of my coming out, and he had apparently gotten word of it. In an area where my experience overlaps with Dr. Schuster’s, this mentor advised me to be wary of coming out. He told me that doing so would circumscribe my career options, and would make it much more difficult to enter certain fields. He gave me this advice without malice, and with what I believe to be the very best of intentions. I did not heed it.
Dr. Schuster describes an environment where he felt chronic if not constant fear of being open with the wrong people. I am lucky in that I can say that I had almost the opposite experience. Almost nobody ever gave me any trouble about being gay at all. Almost… but not quite.
During my surgery rotation, I got into a confrontation with one of the surgeons after he jokingly referred to brazil nuts as “nigger toes.” (It was during a discussion of the adrenal glands, which are said to resemble them.) I stormed out of the room, perhaps inadvisedly, and came back later to make my peace with him. I rather stupidly thought that would be the end of it. About a year later, I was told that the same surgeon had been talking about the incident one day in the OR with one of the residents, and referred to me as “that queer.” As it happens, the student assisting on that case was one of my best friends, and though the surgeon didn’t call me by name, it was clear from the conversation that he was talking about me.
After wrestling with the issue for a while, I asked my friend if he’d be willing to verify the story if I reported it to administrators. (I was very reluctant to ask, as I didn’t want to make his life difficult, either.) Being a man of decency, he agreed without hesitation. I went to the dean in charge of student affairs and told him what had happened. He listened gravely, then took down my friend’s name and assured me he would look into the matter. My friend never heard from him, and nothing was ever done.
It is for this reason that I do not donate money to my medical school.
When one considers how hard gay and lesbian people have had to fight for equality and respect, that one incident seems very small. And indeed, it really was small. I have been lucky to have come after a generation of people like Dr. Schuster and those before him, who bore more of the burden and took more of the risk. Because of them, I have always been able to say without apology that I would not take a job that didn’t offer benefits to my partner. Because of them, I can display pictures of my husband and son on the mantle of my office right along with the families of the other people who work there. Though there is still so much to be done, as Dr. Schuster notes at the end of his piece, we have come so very far. And it is because of people like him.
I can be nothing but grateful.
[Cross-posted at the main page. Image by Keith Haring.]