A poignant article recently featured in the New York Times addresses the question, Does Medicine Discourage Gay Doctors? Written by Pauline Chen, M.D., the piece primarily focuses on the personal and professional life of Dr. Mark A. Schuster, the current head of General Pediatrics at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Dr. Schuster provided a candid account of his experience of being gay in medicine in a recent issue of the journal Academic Pediatrics, and addresses his constant struggle to “choose between being a doctor and being openly gay.” His writing is enthralling, but also painful to read, delivering a direct and fearless account of a profession that is dedicated to helping others, yet is also responsible for regarding its own practitioners as “deviant.” In Chen’s own words:
Dr. Schuster describes being a medical student at Harvard in the 1980s, searching for guidance at a time when discussions on gay health were sandwiched between lectures on prostitutes and drug addicts. He hears about high-ranking medical school faculty members who actively block job or residency applicants they suspect to be gay. Another gay man, a law student he happens to know, is trotted into one of his medical school lectures as “a real live one” who would “tell us what it was like.” One of the few open faculty members finally advises him to remain closeted until after at least his first semester grades. That way, she explains, the school won’t be able to trump up academic charges as a reason for expelling him.
Most poignant, however, is what happens to Dr. Schuster toward the end of medical school. A powerful figure in the specialty he hopes to pursue quickly becomes a father figure, doling out advice to the young man and volunteering to write glowing recommendation letters for residency training programs. One day, Dr. Schuster decides to reveal to his mentor that he is gay. “I felt I had to,” he recalls. Residencies wanted leaders, and his most important experiences as a leader to date had been with a gay group. Moreover, he writes, “I didn’t want him to hear from someone else and think I didn’t trust him.”
His mentor’s reaction is silence. And a few months later, with only weeks to go before the deadline for submitting residency applications, he tells Dr. Schuster he will no longer write a letter of support.
“I felt blindsided; and there were no policies, no grievance boards and no mechanisms in place to protect us,” Dr. Schuster said when I spoke to him last week. There is no anger in his voice when he talks about his experiences. “It wasn’t just me, nor was it just the places where I was learning and working. There were a lot of doctors who had the same experiences as I did all over the country.”
Things have changed dramatically since the 1980s. A few years ago Harvard recruited Dr. Schuster to return to work at the institution; now, the medical school and hospital where he was once persuaded to remain in the closet has openly embraced him, along with his husband and their children. There are currently a number of active support groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients, families and employees. And Dr. Schuster delivered his essay as the keynote address for that organizations major annual gala. In American culture more broadly, popular campaigns such as “It Gets Better” feature LGBT doctors sharing their lives to support young people as they navigate adolescent and college years.
“I have been very lucky that I can live and work in a place that is supportive,” Dr. Schuster told the New York Times. “But I wrote this essay to help people remember. Because the world has changed so quickly, it’s become easy to forget that for many clinicians and patients who are lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual, things haven’t changed at all. … My experiences wouldn’t seem so quaint to them.”
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