I am a very easy going person. I infrequently get upset or irritated by people. But there are two things that really tend to get me all worked up: racism and homophobia. I tend to like most people, but once they start making racist or homophobic comments, it’s very difficult for me to continue respecting them. I might not walk away, but it will certainly ruffle my feathers.
During my clinical rotations so far, I have encountered very few racist comments by fellow students, residents, or attendings. Every once in a while I might hear a comment that could be vaguely considered racist, but nothing incredibly striking. Sadly, the same is not true for homophobic comments. Just the other day I heard an attending refer to a homosexual male using the “f” word. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such comments. I’ve actually heard a variety of disparaging words spoken about homosexual persons.
It’s not just the comments that bother me, either. There also seems to be a general lack of education and awareness in medical education about homosexuality, transgenderism, transsexuality, transvestites, and other sexual and gender orientation topics. I once overheard a doctor talking about their transgendered patient by referring to her as a transvestite, which she clearly wasn’t. It seems that although these topics might be briefly reviewed in some medical school curricula, there is clearly more room for improvement. I could go on to list all the reasons that it’s important for a physician to have a broad base of knowledge with respect to these issues, but I actually think it’s rather self-evident.
So, I started thinking today about why I rarely hear healthcare professionals make racist comments, but have heard them make all kinds of homophobic and homo-illiterate comments. I think it’s likely due to our general acceptance of different cultures versus different sexual or gender orientations. Our society has simply become more accepting of racial equality, and not of homosexual equality. A perfect example is that in this country, it used to be illegal for a black person to marry a white person. Thankfully, these laws were eradicated years ago. However, in this country, it is still illegal for a man to marry another man, or a woman to marry another woman.
Another good example of our society’s level of comfort with other races versus other sexual orientations is our use of derogatory terms. I’ve never heard a medical professional refer to a black patient by using the “n” word. However, I have heard both students and doctors use the “f” word to refer to a homosexual patient. I find this incredibly saddening, and it causes me quite a bit of angst.
Obviously, I’m not the only person to notice the ways in which our society uses disparaging homophobic phrases, without actually considering the consequences. In fact, there is a whole advertisement series (which won an award), featuring various celebrities, the goal being to make people aware of how offensive the phrase “that is so gay” can be. You can view one of the commercials with Wanda Sykes on YouTube here.
I think that everyone should consider the impact their words have on other people. But as healthcare professionals, it’s even more important to be cognizant of the effects. We need to educate medical students on all the various permutations of gender and sexual orientations. I believe that education is always an important step in reducing stereotypical and prejudicial thinking. We also need to take a stand when we hear someone make an off-hand comment that we find offensive. Otherwise, people might never truly understand the impact their words can have on other people.
I encourage you all to share your thoughts. What do you think about medical students and doctors who make racial remarks or pejorative comments about homosexuals? Does it even offend you? If so, have you ever taken a stand?