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.

{Image by Keith Haring}

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23 thoughts on “My own experience of being gay in medicine

  1. Wow. Nice post.

    I don’t have a lot to add, except that I knew someone while I was in grad school who was in med school (and gay). He told me that the issues he had were less about overt homophobia and more about how he just didn’t fit into the old boys’ club. He was strongly considering being an OBGYN just because the field was dominated by women who treated him like a regular person.

    Pretty sure he ended up in radiology, though.

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  2. 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.

    Well, it’s one more incident than I (a straight, white male) have had to face.

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  3. Awsome piece Russell. Being about as removed in time from your professional workplace as you are from Dr. Schuster’s I have experienced pretty much no bigotry about my orientation at all. I am keenly aware, however, of the broken generations before me who fought for the freedom I enjoy. Gratitude is certainly the bare minimum of necessary responses.

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  4. I would suppose that nothing came of the incident that you know of because the administrators considered the Brazil nuts incident not directed at you, and the “that queer” comment was not made in your presence. It wouldn’t be enough in a lawsuit, I would think, to convince a jury of the existence of a hostile environment — at least, not without melanin levels significantly higher than I presume you actually have. So the most I would expect out of what you describe would be a private reprimand and more likely a private “coaching.” To the complainant, this can seem like a “nothing happened” result because those results would not be reported back to the complainant in a typical situation. That doesn’t mean I disagree with your decision to withhold donations; I’d probably do the same in your position. Just some perspective on the underlying incident, one which I suspect you’ve come across before.

    On a rather different note, in my work with high school kids, I can report that at least on the higher end of the academic bell curve there are some signs of even greater promise — a young man who identifies himself as gay, even in a part of my state considered to be significantly conservative, reported that he never felt the need to even be closeted in the first place. He just figured everyone knew anyway and the people who were going to dislike him for that would dislike him anyway whether he hid his identity or not, and the people who were going to be friends with him would be friends with him anyway. That seems to be true in practice, too; none of the other kids ever treated him differently as far as I could tell, and indeed they didn’t seem to find it worthy of mention nor a subject of dancing on eggshells in interactions with him. I don’t know whether he felt pressure from his family. On the other hand, the phrase “that’s gay” to disparage something is well-accepted by the kids, and a tolerance of jokes at the expense of gays generally which would not be tolerated in other contexts like race. It’s not quite like race, which the kids see but are basically indifferent to. Sex matters a lot, but I don’t see how it couldn’t with high school kids in puberty and beginning to experiment with romance. It seems odd to me that “gay” in the abstract can still be an object of derision, but “gay” in a concrete instance can be so well-tolerated.

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    • Burt, the guy may have covered his ass legally, but the decent thing to do would be to report to Russell what steps he did take.

      My female cousin came out at 14, and acted like it was no big deal, and helped run her school’s LGBT club. Back when I went to high school, there was exactly one guy out of 1400 who was out.

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    • Don’t get me wrong, Burt.  I certainly don’t think what happened to me was actionable, and I wasn’t looking for a grand gesture.  Indeed, my own melanin levels made it clear the racial slur wasn’t directed at me.  (In fact, during our confrontation he wondered aloud why I was making such a big deal of it, since there weren’t any black people around to be offended when he said it.)  However, a physician with an academic appointment: 1) denigrated a student in front of another student, and 2) did so using a grossly offensive term of abuse.  Perhaps there was some response of which I was unaware (in which case they didn’t ever bother to check my story with the person who was actually there), but if so it was never communicated to me and thus insufficient to meet my expectations.  Hence, no cash from me.

      I hear more and more what you’re saying about kids coming through high school now.  Frankly, I had kind of the same experience even in medical school when a kid in my high school was out of the closet just a few years after I’d gone there.  It would have been inconceivable to me to have come out then, and I was amazed at how quickly things had changed.

       

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    • “gay” as a teenage insult is what “eff” used to be.  Nobody cares if you say “eff” anymore, beyond a mild “don’t talk like that, please, it’s rude”.  But everyone loses their minds when you say something’s “gay”.  (and God forbid you say “nigger” anywhere a grown-up can hear you.)  The insult has a connotation about sexual orientation, but it’s as far removed from the actual use as “eff” generally is from sexual activity.  (When I say that my effin’ car wouldn’t start, I do not mean to imply that my car actually engages in sexual intercourse, although it’s an intriguing notion.  Perhaps that’s how we get Karmann-Ghias.)

      Note that here I use the euphemism “eff” because I don’t actually mean to use the word.

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    • It seems odd to me that “gay” in the abstract can still be an object of derision, but “gay” in a concrete instance can be so well-tolerated.

      Because people don’t think about the literal meanings of idioms, I’d guess.

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  5. Lovely, lovely post, Russell. I don’t often tell you how much I admire you, because you are my total BFF and I let it go unsaid. But: I admire you.

    I went to a pediatric practice that included a very obviously gay doctor. His sexual orientation was never brought up in conversation, so I never knew if he was out (it never occurred to me to wonder). About ten years ago, I ran into him at a vacation spa place. He was eating dinner with another man, and I went over to say hello. He got very flustered and introduced the man as his cousin. I was really shocked. I’m from the northeast; I had no idea that doctors still felt the need to be closeted in that day and age and that part of the country. (I’m guessing he was 45-50 when I ran into him).

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  6. I’ve previously said one friendship with a gay boy (back in the 1960s) cost me other friendships and caused no end of trouble with my parents.   It seems to me, breeder boy that I am, there are two levels of consternation created when someone comes out.

    The first arises among friends, who might have suspected all along, but who must now assimilate the certain knowledge one of their friends is gay.   The second and more problematic arises among that circle of acquaintances, the people who coexist with the newly-out (or outed!) gay person and must overcome learned prejudices.

    Of the actual homophobes I will say nothing:  I contend many if not most of them are wrestling with their own sexuality and self-hatred.

    Institutionalised prejudice always limits options.   But those who refuse to kowtow to those prejudices suffer, too.   Oh, true, they don’t suffer the direct consequences but the haters were quite willing to lump the Civil Rights workers in with the minorities whose cause the workers espoused.  Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner weren’t black.   The Klan didn’t make any distinction when they murdered those kids in Meridian Mississippi in 1964 for attempting to register black people to vote.

    This isn’t to deny, I repeat, the more serious struggle for respect which can only be undertaken by those denied their rights.   I only mean to observe, that in some ways, the friends of the out-group come in for a special sort of hatred, that of the traitor.

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  7. I would have expected, given its reputation, that Harvard would have been a much more tolerant place

    You have read about this skeleton in Harvard Yard, right?

    Great post.  It’s good to be reminded every once in awhile how far we’ve come and the vast differences between even a single generation.  Though it sounds like the insular surgeon’s club is still coming to terms with civil rights battles fought a half century ago.  The shame is as much on the other doctors that heard the comment(s) and did or said nothing.  That’s how these behaviors perpetuate — monkey see, monkey do.

    Good of you for standing your ground with your old school.  I wonder if they ever put two and two together?  Might be nice to respond with a personal letter next time you get an alumni “please give us money” solicitation reminding them of why they shouldn’t be expecting any.

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  8. Things have changed remarkably in two decades.

    A suggestion:  rather than withholding donations, give the school some money and ear-mark it for use by the gay student group or for some gender/ sexuality programs.  I’m sure they’ve got one or the other.

     

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  9. So lets see if I got this right. Because of the actions and words of 1 or 2 individuals and the inability of your Med School to punish them (for legitimate or illigitimate reasons) you do not donate to the school that gave you the education and MD degree to go on and have a productive happy life, live where you wanted, help people and belong to the top 1% in the country?

    Sounds kind of petty and single issue focused rather than seeing the big picture. They let you into medical school didn’t they? Shouldn’t you support that mission so others can prosper. What was that liberal canard, “Pay it forward.’? Or as a liberal are you waiting till you can be generous with other peoples money?

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