Feeling like an outsider is never a pleasant experience. For some people and groups, exclusion is a part of everyday life. Being of a certain race, class, or gender (among others) gives us strength in identity, but also assigns us to a position in the social hierarchy. As a white man, I’m privileged to not belong to a “visible minority”.
However, I am a member of a non-visible minority – I self-identify as a gay male. I am also a member of one of the most respected professions in the world.
This juxtaposition sometimes hits me when I think about the future. Will I be respected for my profession? Or will I be stigmatized and discriminated against by patients and colleagues alike for my minority status? As a member of a “non-visible” minority, I can choose to hide my status if I feel like doing so. For many others in my profession, this is not an option. Racism and sexism continue to persist in my workplace. While we educate our students on these issues in a patient-specific context, we are not always provided with information on discrimination that occurs intra-professionally.
While I have not felt discriminated against thus far in my medical career, I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the fact that I am a private person. What microaggressions would I encounter if every one of my colleagues were cognizant of my minority status? This thought often makes me hesitant to reveal my sexual orientation to my peers.
I’m proud of who I am, and I am proud of all of my accomplishments. However, this pride doesn’t stop me from fearing how I will be treated if I revealed an aspect of myself that people might irrationally hate. Where does this fear come from? The answer is historical context. Past leaders in medicine and other respected professions were often heterosexist and homophobic men who actively discriminated against those who identify as LGBTQ+. Stories about older physicians who were shunned by their colleagues once their sexual orientation was made public are not uncommon.
In the medical profession today, overt discrimination has been replaced by microaggression. Colleagues who remark “I never would have guessed!” when someone discloses their sexual orientation, and preceptors who ask invasive questions about a transgendered student’s surgical status, are both examples of microaggressions that discourage LGBTQ+ physicians and students from being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Discrimination and microaggression in the workplace are problems without an immediate solution – people are resistant to change by nature, and even those who insist that they are open-minded may still perpetuate a hostile environment.
I’m fortunate that I’ve landed in an environment where I am accepted and loved for who I am, regardless of my sexual orientation. This isn’t the case for many medical students and physicians around the world. These people entered medicine to help their fellow human being, only to find themselves mentally (and sometimes physically) abused by their colleagues.
We, as physicians, need to recognize our prejudices so that we can ensure a safe and supportive work environment for all of our colleagues.
“First do no harm”— It applies not only to our patients, but to our colleagues as well.