Out on the Wards

[box]Tom Swaine considers the difficulties that some LGBTQ students encounter on the wards [/box]

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Coming out is an odd experience; as much as it is portrayed as this key, dramatic, singular event in your life, the truth is the exact opposite. Not in the sense that is isn’t a key turning point in your life (it is), nor because it usually fails to deliver on drama (terrifying with even the most understanding friends and family). Coming out never ends. Instead, you go through variations of this ordeal with almost every new person you meet. Undoubtedly, the process is magnitudes easier with practice, and can, once you’re comfortable, be increasingly avoided entirely via word of mouth, visual cues, and the ‘interested in’ section of your Facebook. Eventually, most of us create a stable bubble of sorts in our social circles, where almost anyone we’re likely to have a meaningful interaction with either knows beforehand or can quickly figure it out, allowing us to banish the prospect of a potentially awkward coming out anew from our day to day concerns.

That is, until we find ourselves thrust into the quasi-professional world of clinical placements. Whilst our straight counterparts can continue unfazed through the innocuous exchange of pleasantries on wards, gay students find themselves caught out. How do you respond when the surgical registrar starts up some locker talk, or when the consultant whose clinic you’re sitting in all week asks about what you got up to on the weekend? Homophobic backlash is much harder to ignore when it comes from a superior, and what you get out of clinical placements is all too often based on the relationship you foster with your team. Unsurprisingly, when faced with these awkward and isolating situations, many gay medics find themselves back in the closet (this time filled with gauze, tourniquets and cannulae), and if a patient probes, that closet will be double-locked for fear of professionalism accusations.

Inevitably, some will start to wonder if this is really a bad thing. Placements are finite, after all, and generally short – why not just suck it up till the next one? Coming out is a very personal experience, so surely it is inappropriate to disclose your sexuality to a patient? Without guidance and visible role models, gay students may find themselves concluding that this is just what ‘professionalism’ means for LGBT medics: keeping your private life private.

A more accurate name for that kind of thinking is internalised homophobia. At its root is the dangerous misconception that being openly gay is incompatible with being a professional. In actuality, workplace research is unanimous: people perform better when they can be themselves. The professional relationships you foster on placements are a sort of training wheels for the ones you will need in your career, and are better free from the constraints fear of ‘outing’ yourself create. The law and the GMC recognise this, and protection against homophobic harassment is enshrined in the Duties of a Doctor. Whilst it may not seem that way, there are openly gay doctors (I work for an organisation full of them) to draw inspiration and support from, if you know where to look.

At its simplest, Medical School is about preparing yourself for a career that will last your entire lifetime; don’t let it prepare you for a career in the closet.

Tom Swaine
Guest Writer

Tom is the Student Chair of GLADD, the Gay & Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists

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