As a physician from Ghana brought up in a very religious family, I must admit that when it comes to gay rights and other issues related to sexual minorities I was as far to the right as anyone could be. My first experience with openly gay individuals was when I came to the United States. Needless to say, gay behavior in Ghana was so stigmatized as to be nonexistent in the public sphere in my days in Ghana. It does not mean though that gay behavior was absent; it just was not “good manners” to discuss or talk about minority sexual practices.
My experience with gay co-workers, friends and patients has taught me a lot, and my views and attitudes have seen a turnaround with time. With this experience and background, I have a lot of understanding for my friends, family members and co-workers who may have less accepting attitudes and believes on sexuality. I can be more open to alternate views mostly because it was not the information in journals or books that led to my transformation.
If I had only read books and journals, I would have been more confused, because I would have found other books and journals with totally opposite points of view. I have been fortunate in this area to have taught by the varied gay, lesbian and transgender individuals that I have interacted with over the years. I am also more understanding of individuals who believe gays and trans and other sexual minorities choose to have alternate sexual behaviors because I am still learning. It is this humility which I have gained after several years interactions with different individuals that has shaped my beliefs today.
I must admit that I am not as religious as I was 10 to 15 years ago, but I have seen changes in myself which may be me just getting old. I however strongly believe that my unique professional experience providing care for patients who sometimes happen to be both sexual and ethnic minorities has been the source of my growth. My gay colleagues have been of immense assistance in my transformation, and I will continue to owe them immensely. With all this experience under my belt, I cannot expect a colleague with a different experience to be on the same page on sexual minority rights.
I will, therefore, like to ask that health providers must exercise a lot of love and understanding in addressing these issues which can engender some controversy. I realize for some totally avoiding the discussion can seem to be a solution. I, however, will like to suggest that we all examine how and when we engage and when not to engage. My experience has taught me that it is only beneficial to engage in the following situations:
- When an individual is being attacked and will need some support.
- When, a person appears to be genuinely questioning their views and actions and may need another point of view.
I have learned to avoid confronting individuals who may not be really seeking understanding but just seeking to pass time discussing a controversial topic. While this may be useful in educating others who may learn from the discussion it usually only serves to get people further entrenched in their views. One other result is that sometimes the discussions can destroy relationships that have taken a lot of work to build. The discussion on gay and other sexual minority rights, unfortunately, is going to go on for a long time.
Medical providers, just by virtue of our work, will be on the forefront of this discussion. The only way we can have a healthy discussion is to do this with love and understanding. We are all at best just products of our environments and our views and understanding on these difficult issues do not in any way define us. We cannot demonize our friends, families, members or co-workers just by virtue of where they stand on these issues. We can only use love and understanding to ensure that others use the same attitude in dealing with sexual minorities. With such an attitude we do not need to really need to agree with others entirely or at all, but we can still have healthy interactions that will help guide attitudes and views in due time.
Leonard A. Sowah is an internal medicine physician.
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