My own experience of being gay in medicine

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.]

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. This was excellent, my friend. There’s still such a ways to go that I have a tendency to forget how far we’ve come in the past couple of decades. I’d like to think that kind of things you describe from your med school experience don’t happen all that much anymore. (If they do… hello lawsuit!)

    I hope you don’t take this as me making light of your experiences (which sound infuriating), but sometimes when I get down on where we are today in this country, I think about things like that picture of your husband in your office and how suddenly its commonplace to see those things, and I realize we’re going in exactly the right direction after all… and I think everything’s going to be ok.

  2. Many years ago, in the 90’s, i was leaving work to go skiing with my friend Ginny. I used to work with her and i had helped get her girlfriend Karen a job where i worked. We were all good friends and i had known they were together for a couple of years. We were in a office with the door closed. When it was time for Ginny and I to leave Karen and Ginny sort of goofily, playfully looked around the room ( it was just us three) and then gave each other a goodbye kiss. They were goofing because they could actually do this simple thing couples do all the time. Funny, sweet and i couldn’t help but feel how sad it was that it was something they had to hide.

    Great post. We have come so far. Karen has since openly adopted three kids. She was born to be a mom.

  3. I had actually been thinking of sending you a request to post something along these lines, but couldn’t figure out how to phrase it in a way that didn’t seem pigeonholing. If that makes sense. My question was a little different, I suppose, as to whether and how your sexuality has affected (not affected) your relationship with patients and whether that has caused any issues.

    • It’s mostly been a non-issue. I certainly try to make it one as much as possible.

      The only time it’s ever been problematic that I’ve perceived is one particularly truculent adolescent patient at a previous practice. He was very difficult, and had caused problems in the past, and made several churlish anti-gay comments about me in the waiting room after an appointment. He was invited to find medical care elsewhere.

      But that’s about it, really. If anything, it’s been a small net positive. As I indicated above, I practice in the Boston area, so there are many same-gender couples with kids. Many have been drawn to our office because I’m here. And since I practice adolescent medicine, which occasionally requires a pelvic exam on teenage girls, I’ve been told there’s word out there that I’m “safe” because of being gay.

      Rarely I will play the gay card explicitly. When I do, it’s usually when I have a gay male patient who is engaging in risky sexual behavior and seems to think HIV is a thing of the past. That’s when I’ll occasionally pull up a chair and do my “son, let me tell you what the AIDS crisis was like” bit. I think the advice has a bit more weight coming from someone within the community than it might if it seemed like a lecture from a judgmental straight person.

  4. Thanks for this Doc. It’s great stuff. It’s incumbent on us who enjoy the fruits of the efforts of our elders to endevor to make things that much easier for the young gays who’ll follow after us.

  5. Wow, this is one of your best postings. Very moving!

    I have told my WASP husband, a wonderful man, that as a WASP male, he really doesn’t know what it feels like to be the object of bigotry and prejudice, and he agrees. I have experienced antisemitism and, in my family of origin, extreme sexism, which hurt even more.

    Your experiences make me especially glad, and thankful, that I have overcome my homophobia. God truly changed my mind and my heart.

Comments are closed.