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February is LGBT History Month: a month-long annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. We want to use this opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our members and elevate the voices of LGBT+ medical students, and their lived experience, to the forefront of conversations happening throughout this month. Below is a collection of short anecdotes from LGBT+ student members of the BMA, reflecting on their experiences on the wards and beyond with regards to their sexuality or gender identity:
David Clayton, University of Glasgow
“I came out in second year of medical school much to the collective shrugs and knowing grins of many of my friends. My mum said she had known since I was 16 and used up all the ink in the home printer trying to print out and assemble a 12-sheet Björk poster for my room. My older brother – a DJ – said he’d make me a mix of his favourite gay techno artists (I’m still yet to hear this but the sentiment was there).
This supportive atmosphere carried through my six years of medical school in Glasgow. I’ve never experienced outward discrimination on placement and know of my rights if that day ever comes. Medical school in fact introduced me to opportunities to gear training towards aspects of LGBT+ health I was particularly interested in, such as community-based research into HPV vaccination for men who have sex with men (MSM) with support from Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland.
Getting involved with the BMA has introduced me to LGBT+ medics at all stages of training from across the UK - yet hearing others’ experiences has reiterated to me that I have had a very sheltered path in medicine so far. Training in inclusive language and pronoun usage as well as visual indicators of inclusivity such as NHS Rainbow Badges are small changes towards a more welcoming environment for patients and staff alike.”
Taylan Gumus, St George’s University of London
“Recently, a patient came into the practice for a review before flying out to renew her wedding vows, which naturally lead to a conversation about relationships. This inevitably led to her asking if I had anyone special in my life, to which I replied, ‘I’m still looking for the right guy, let alone planning vow renewals.’ She went on to tell me about her brother who was gay, as many people do when they find out you are gay, but it was just nice to be able to speak openly with her. In avoiding the subject, I felt that it would have just made her feel uncomfortable, which doesn’t help in this profession, especially when you want to try and find out as much as you can about your patients. It is instances like this which make me realise I made the right choice in being open about my sexuality. It may seem like a small detail, but in a world where people are discriminated against because of their sexuality, it’s a blessing to find people who accept you.
It’s reassuring to see events such as the BMA’s bullying and harassment conference and the events given during LGBT history month on topics such as caring for LGBT patients. These events provide an opportunity to learn more about the issues that LGBT individuals struggle with, and why it in fact does matter if I can be open about my sexuality.”
Anonymous transgender member
“A helpful nurse pointed out patients that might let me and some colleagues take histories. I approached one and asked politely if I could have a quick chat, and the patient told me I couldn't because he was too tired and didn't feel like talking to medical students right now. A patient's right to refuse to talk to us is absolute. But when I got back to the nurses station to ask if there was anyone else who might talk to me, I looked up to see him happily chatting to one of my cisgender male colleagues. That stung a little, but it would be far from the last time that I'd lose out on an opportunity to gain clinical experience because of my gender identity. A patient who had agreed for me to observe a procedure changed her mind after a consultant was unable to settle on a pronoun to describe me. A mum of a patient similarly changed her mind about talking to medical students when she saw me. I've lost track of all the cases where I've felt like a patient's attitude has changed once learning I was trans, and I do try to chalk it up to anything else first. A certain amount of refusal is, of course, to be expected and there's really nothing that can be done about it. This has gotten better though. I am in my third clinical year; refusals feel both less common and those that do happen feel less often related to my gender identity. It's difficult to say whether this is a reflection of changing social attitudes about trans people or simply that I'm less visibly trans these days. If it's the latter, it's pretty cold comfort to my transgender colleagues who don't have the luxury of not being visibly trans or who are earlier in their transitions. I spend a lot of time second guessing what people will think of me. I worry about things as basic as how I look on a given day. Times when I've felt genuinely supported has eased a lot of that mental burden. Support can be shown as simply as with rainbow lanyards or teaching that takes into account that transgender people exist. Many people avoid asking questions like "What pronouns do you prefer?" or "How would you like to be addressed?" out of fear of offence or embarrassment, but when staff take the time to do so -with a little discretion- it's far more likely to come across as understanding.”
Emma Runswick, University of Manchester
“I make a conscious choice to come out whenever it is safe to do so. I wear a Pride Flag badge alongside my BMA rep badge, to indicate to colleagues and patients that I am a safe person to talk to. I always mirror patients’ language on partners or gender identity in the way I wish everyone would for me. I campaign for changes to the curriculum, and for the BMA to create change through BMJ learning modules and such. I have brought policy to the BMA on trans health and this year I will bring a motion on intersex rights. I hope that by doing this I pay credit to those who fought for my rights before me and make it better for those after me.
However, it doesn’t always go to plan. When I wore my wedding ring to placement, a surgical Registrar asked me some questions, and commented that “he was a lucky man”. Correction led to the comment “that’s a shame for such a pretty girl” (ie that it was a shame I was ‘gay’ because it meant a pretty woman was not for men/him specifically). I decided to remove my badge in a GP placement with openly religious GP partners. I sought to understand their beliefs and found no hope that the reaction would be good. I pretended to be single for the entire placement, back to the ‘housemate’ routine many have trod before me. Having been in a long-term relationship with a woman, which came to an end, I now find myself coming out again to those who understood me to be lesbian (despite me never claiming this identity). The erasure in both directions is soul crushing.”
The experiences of our LGBT+ members are unique and varied. Progress has been made in the area of LGBT+ rights but there is still a long way to go. A survey conducted by the BMA/GLADD in 2015 found that 70% of LGBT+ medical students and doctors had experienced discrimination related to their sexuality or gender identity during training. The BMA is committed to tackling bullying and harassment at university, and we would encourage any members interested in this area to reach out and get involved in our work. Even something as simple as going onto your profile on the BMA website and completing your monitoring data can allow us to better understand the demographics of the community we represent, and better advocate for your interests and needs.
Interested in contributing to the BMA’s work on equality, inclusion and culture? Reach out via [email protected]