Obstacles to being open: why doctors need LGBTQ+ support networks

by Ciara Greer

The reaction by colleagues at work to people being open about their sexuality is leading to isolation

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 24 June 2021
ciara greer

It’s March 2020 and my girlfriend and I have just separated, partly influenced by how stressed I’ve been with work, when I find out I am no longer rotating to a different specialty come April.

I have never felt more hopeless in my life.

I was stuck unable to see my friends, in a job that frayed me, trying to navigate through my first foray into heartbreak. My only social contact was with colleagues who, although lovely, I felt I couldn’t talk to about what I was going through. It seemed disingenuous to talk to them about my breakup with a girlfriend they didn’t even know had existed.

Only 59% of healthcare staff are completely ‘out’ at work1 and 70% of LGBTQ+ doctors and students have experienced environmental homophobia within the past two years.2

Even in an organisation that encourages kindness and compassion for people of all backgrounds, the NHS poses challenges to its LGBTQ+ staff. And that’s before we start to consider patients’ attitudes towards us.

Yet the support of our colleagues is a key factor in making work a productive and sustainable part of our lives. Indeed, the training we receive around the NHS’s pet buzzword ‘resilience’ will usually feature some mention of the importance of strong interpersonal relationships in the workplace.2

For LGBTQ+ staff this can often be harder to achieve.

For those who ‘come out’ to colleagues, the reaction needn’t be outright homophobic to make us uncomfortable. Many ask invasive questions – particularly of our trans colleagues – or try so hard to appear unfazed that they mention it disconcertingly often.

Some people assume that being open with them as colleagues means we’re also happy for every patient and her relative to know about our personal lives too. There are many reports of LGBTQ+ staff being volunteered to work holidays as if our family lives are of less value.

Plus, the pressure of being an ambassador of a whole community means there are plenty of us who feel they cannot talk about problems with their home lives.3

Given all this, is it any surprise that so many of us are reticent at work?

As one LGBQT+ doctor told us: ‘While 90% of the time it would be fine, that 10% is enough to make people hold back.’

For people like me, who don’t talk about our partners at work, this causes its own problems; difficulty bonding and isolation, guilt for hiding your loved ones and lack of support when you need someone to vent to.

Although I had plenty of LGBTQ+ friends to talk to after my breakup, I found some unknown factor missing. They may have understood what it’s like to have your heart broken, but they didn’t understand how a fraught relationship can be panned further by experiences fairly specific to the NHS.

With the incessant blare of the on-call bleep, the frustration of being caught between different specialties arguing over a patient’s care, the drain of separately explaining to your patient’s three estranged daughters exactly how you plan to care for their Mum – all of this influenced the death and subsequent grieving of my relationship, in a way that I found difficult to express at the time.

I found the supportive niche I needed some months later in the GLADD Women’s Network. Intended as a way for our members to share news, media, advice and foster relationships, the group put me in touch with a host of female LGBTQ+ doctors across the country. We mostly talk about gardening, pets and vegan recipes (we are queer women after all).

It’s wonderful and hugely reassuring to see people like me living fulfilled lives across a plethora of career paths and have collectively experienced all sorts of challenges as women and LGBTQ+ doctors.

Ultimately, we need to push to improve the experience of LGBTQ+ staff throughout the NHS: a challenge I target at the straight people we work alongside and in management. There is a vast amount of evidence and guidance out there for those with the will.

To my LGBTQ+ siblings, I strongly suggest finding an LGBTQ+ support network to engage with and advocate for you. There are many trust-wide and regional networks, while GLADD represents doctors, dentists and students throughout the UK.

I do not advise this simply to protect against a tragic breakup as the world melts amidst a pandemic, but because they’re genuinely nice places where can you meet new and interesting people, potential mentors, or even a partner who understand what working in the NHS can be like.

Ciara Greer (she/her) is a junior doctor in Belfast and GLADD (Association of LGBTQ+ Doctors and Dentists) co-chair

  1. Unhealthy attitudes: the treatment of LGBT people within health and social care services, Stonewall, 2015
  2. The experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual doctors in the NHS, BMA and GLADD, 2016
  3. These examples are a mix of the above to resources and personal experience