This June has entered without the typical parades, rainbow flags, and jubilee. As the coronavirus lingers and the optimistic case for controlling the spread of COVID-19 casts a long, somber shadow over sections of the country, Pride seems like an afterthought. As a gay emergency physician, and someone who never found particular importance in the Pride events I’ve attended in the past, I wanted to share why Pride matters more than ever this year. Whether we know it or not, we all care, treat, and work with the members of the queer community, and it is our responsibility to listen to them and their lived experiences.
What most don’t realize is that Pride isn’t a parade. It is a mantra of the LGBTQ community — a calling and a choice to be loudly proud of ourselves, regardless of what the outside world might think. In years past, many outside observers may have seen or participated in a Pride parade or attended a demonstration, but this year is different. People are actually listening to the LGBTQ community and paying attention to our intersections with the black, brown, disabled, and countless other communities that come together to form the full spectrum of the rainbow.
Listening is central to being a physician or any health care worker. From medical scribes to surgeons, we all have to listen to our patients. We listen to their heartbeats, their breathing, the words they speak, and the things they may not say. Building trust with our patients and starting a dialogue about their health and well-being is my job as a physician, and the more I know about my patient’s background, their health history, and their community, the better I can serve them.
To me, Pride has often been more about listening than about being heard. Growing up and going to college in a small town in North Carolina, it wasn’t until I started medical school in the early 2000s that I was able to see myself as a gay man. Since then, the give and take of being in a community with others have kept me informed and helped me in my profession and in life.
Prior to medical school, I didn’t really know what it meant to be gay, outside of what I saw in movies, heard in the church, or discussed with friends and family. Without any positive examples or gay role models, I buried my feelings under activities. Four years, two college majors, two minors, and a couple of shifts a week as an emergency department technician, I was learning a lot about the human body and how emergency departments worked, but still had a lot to learn about myself and the future patients I would care for.
It took losing my eyesight to build the community I would need to support me throughout my life and career. During my first year of medical school, I had a virus outbreak in both eyes that caused me to suffer complete vision loss in a matter of weeks. I was devastated at the thought of giving up my dream of becoming a physician. My medical school classmates offered to tutor me and read me their notes so I wouldn’t fall too far behind while I was receiving treatment to recover my vision. It just so happened that they were LGBTQ.
Two years later, I started a group on campus for queer people and allies to learn from and support each other. We called it “Friends and Family” and met a few times a month to share our concerns and struggles in medical school. “Gay-Straight Alliances” are not as prominent today as they were in the early 2000s, but the gay and straight people who supported me through the arduous years — medical school, coming out, being temporarily estranged from my family and residency — are the key to my success. Today, many young queer, trans, and nonbinary folks, refer to this as their “chosen family.”
As I left medical school to complete my residency, I built my own chosen family of gay and straight allies. The support and mentorship I received from other successful gay physicians helped me complete my residency and secure my first job as an attending emergency department physician. As I rose through the ranks, I carried these lessons with me, bringing together staff and colleagues from different backgrounds and communities, and teaching my team how to listen to our patients and discuss sensitive subjects.
As a health care worker, you interact with the lesbian, gay, trans, and queer community, whether you know it or not, and you have an active role to play in listening and creating a comfortable environment where they can disclose their medical history without judgment or reprisal. Unfortunately, doctor offices can be cold, unwelcoming places for many queer people who fear being judged, misgendered, and deadnamed while seeking medical care.
My hope this Pride for myself and my colleagues is that we all begin to see each other as our chosen family and push ourselves to listen and learn more about each others’ experiences. As a white, able-bodied gay man, I still have a lot to learn about the experiences of other members of the queer community. As health care professionals, it is our responsibility to acknowledge and understand our many differences — our patients are depending on us.
Adam Brown is an emergency physician.
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