Serious indecency: Talking about LGB issues in a country where being gay is criminalised

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I took my very first research poster to my profession’s international association conference in 2001 (ISRRT). It happened to be in beautiful Barbados and the combination of rum punch, meeting other therapists interested in research and finding out just how much great work is happening in other countries was intoxicating! My wife and I made the poster together – I can’t remember how we decided who presented it but I do remember being proud to see our two names together on the top. It’s still listed on both of our CVs, along with the journal articles we have co-authored since.

We’ve always worked in the same field, our eyes first met across an electron cut out (a romantic location only radiation therapists would appreciate!). Our relationship at work has always been a bit of a balancing act – a kind of double-managing of the usual professional coming-out dilemma. In the 90s we weren’t eligible for joint medical coverage through our health insurance as a same-sex couple. When I took some time off after my father died (and needed dental work), we filed a human rights complaint that led to a swift exit from the workplace closet. As attitudes and legislation changed, we worried less about being fully who we are there, but there’s considerable evidence that even in progressive Canada many people still actively manage their sexual identity at work.

My research interest is LGB issues, specifically how/if radiation therapists deal with this. Is it an issue? How does it affect relationships with patients? What about LGB patients? I’ve done a few talks already in this area, just preliminary and broad findings from the literature along with some recent research about LGB patients and their experiences with healthcare. There is growing interest in doing a better job – we know there are fairly easy things we can improve, and we need better education across the board. This is true for many Western countries, the UK are well ahead of most of Canada and we all know about some of the issues the US LGB population are facing with Trump attempting to roll back many hard-won rights such as freedom from discrimination legislation.

But what about other countries? Mostly not so great. I logged onto Twitter this morning to see posts about the “Chechnya 100” – gay men imprisoned and possibly killed because of who they love. While gay rights progress in many parts of the world, there are still at least 74 countries that punish same-sex relationships with life imprisonment or even death. Many of these countries are in the Caribbean and one is Trinidad, where the next international association conference is being held. In that country “consensual intercourse between men is punishable by up to 25 years in prison, while “serious indecency” between women is punishable by 15 years in prison. In addition, an unenforced law calls for a prohibition on homosexuals entering Trinidad” (1).  Also not great.

While I was happy to see that the law that would prevent me from entering the country is unenforced (and to be honest I wasn’t planning on having any kind of sex – let alone the seriously indecent sort) this has given me significant pause. What would you do? Go anyway? Go and change your topic from “homosexuality” to something else? Not go as a protest? (To whom?) I talked to the ISRRT’s Public Relations Regional Coordinator for the Americas last week at our national conference and asked her about this. She has gay friends, she doesn’t think it is a big deal – and was unaware of the law. I imagine it wasn’t even on the radar when they picked the venue. But I think it is a big deal and I am aware of it. I just don’t know what to do!

Reference:

  1. Stewart, C. “Legal challenge confronts Trinidad’s anti-gay laws”. 76 Crimes

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http://rebelwalls.com

A pause that isn’t a pause

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No EdD classes at the moment, a pause that seems like a briefly exhaled breath, a stretch between one state and the next. We finished our classwork last month. Eight courses (two electives), fifty plus assignments, group work, deadlines and learning a whole new world view and vocabulary. Our comprehensive exam is next month – we need to pass that to carry on to the research bit. For the last two years I have been looking at May on the calendar and thinking “ah, that is when things will slow down, that is when I can breathe again”. But May turns out to be like all the other months.

I am used to operating on full steam ahead mode – juggling the usual work plus family things. My job is full, there’s always more to do and quite a bit of travel. The other stuff is often what gets me through a rough patch at home or work – I write, mess about with Twitter and #MedRadJClub and usually have a few papers and collaborations on the go. I mostly love it – which makes me lucky – and a big part of my self-image is being able to do it all, be that person who can publish the paper, do that talk, find the solution at work and then make dinner at the end of the day and also run a nice house, plan vacations, stay hydrated and exercise regularly (OK, that last part was a bit of a stretch…) None of this is unusual, we are all doing it. But sometimes we wobble, and I wobbled hard last week.

Early April was the last class, getting the comps paper done, presenting our work to our peers – passing that final course. A family crisis followed. A week ago I had to do a presentation for a grant – relating to a project that is very dear to my heart and one that we had dedicated hundreds of hours to. We just needed money to try it out. This was the 4th or 5th kick at the can to find funding. My slides were short and to the point, I felt prepared and fairly confident (we were in the final group) and it just seemed like this was going to be the time. Well, it wasn’t, we didn’t get it and I was heartbroken!

The next day (a Saturday) I had a keynote talk at our provincial association on a topic which really interests me. I’d been reading about it in class and wanted to share the ideas with my professional peers. But it was a new concept, and a new talk, which (again) takes hours and hours of prep, rehearsal and adrenaline.  Since February I had taken to waking between 4 and 5 – then just getting up to work. It was the only time that was quiet, and the only time I could write (I am writing this now while the house is asleep – except for my cat who demands to be picked up!). You can do that for a while – and it helped me write my comps paper, prepare for my pitch and write my talk – but not forever.

So, Sunday I try and get out of bed and it won’t happen. My head is aching, I feel like a black cloud has descended. There’s work to do, kid’s baseball games to watch, a gym appointment, the grass needs cutting…. Sunday stuff.  But I can’t do it.  I lie there, until noon.  I imagine quitting my job, quitting the doctorate. I struggle to understand why all this stuff is in any way important.  The life of the family continues without me – doors slam, food is made, cups of tea appear at my bedside. I think “I can’t do this anymore, my brain is fried”. It was frightening, a glimpse into what can happen if the candle burning at both ends up setting the house on fire! I got up, eventually, and went to work again on Monday but with a sense that the line between OK and not OK is very, very thin. This week I am tentative, careful – taking breaks, making sure I stretch, drinking my chia smoothies. But it is not the same.  My feelings are close to the surface, my patience is limited, my cuticles are raw.

There’s a lot of research that shows doing a doctorate is a tough gig, and can affect your mental health. I expected that to be later, maybe next year – with my transcripts piled around me and feeling like I was getting nowhere. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

Posting while female

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I love interacting online. My Twitter friends and colleagues have enriched my professional life and offered lots of opportunities for collaboration, research, lecture opportunities and general social banter. I have many “friends I haven’t met yet” that are a source of support for my writing and study, and whose work I follow with interest and admiration. Social media has widened my world and I am all the better for it.

I post as a radiation therapist, researcher, woman, mum and lesbian. I often talk about work, what I am doing, what other people are up to – and my posts and my interests reflect the intersection of all my identities.  Work can be tricky though. Usually when an organization dips its toes into the swirly maelstrom of social media it begins with risk management. Often this results in a policy or statement – and usually that statement is more a list of what not to do. Of course we need to protect patients’ privacy, and be professional about how we conduct ourselves online. Moaning about work on an open platform is probably not a good idea as it’s easy to figure out who is saying what about where (or whom). I find, though, that these kinds of guidelines often scare people – I’ve asked at work a couple of times if I can tweet about an interesting project (for example) and invariably the response is “we should check with the communications office”.  So it’s a balancing act between the personal and the professional – which is the subject of some research I am doing at the moment for my EdD. When we are at work we want to “be professional”. In healthcare this usually means adopting a neutral persona, not bringing our “private life” into the workplace and so on. But our (unstated, often unexamined) norm for “professional” is male – part of the long association of women with hearth and home, and men with work. This spills into all sorts of areas, obviously there’s a long history of gender occupational inequity where women (still) earn less than man in many cases, hold less senior management positions and still shoulder the majority of domestic (unpaid) work. None of this is news.

What is also fairly well known is the amount of hassle some women get online when they start to talk about these things and start pushing into territory traditionally occupied by men. Examples abound, including the horrendous abuse the Gamergate women endured and the ridiculous fuss made about the Ghostbusters remake and subsequent trolling of Leslie Jones. Social media has also been used to fight back – such as the fabulous #DistractinglySexy campaign by female scientists reacting to Tim Hunt’s unfortunate sexist remarks. It’s part of the risk of posting anything while female – and is more risky if the stakes are higher and you’re questioning long held gender norms.

Most of my online interactions are overwhelmingly positive. However a few are not. A few examples include a few nasty tweets after I posted something pretty innocuous with #EverydaySexism. One persistent guy bombarded me with information about “reverse sexism” and why men were oppressed by female-only spaces. He helpfully also sent me a couple of emails to follow up as I obviously didn’t understand how feminism worked. A few times people have demanded to know why I am making a fuss, as no one is directly oppressing me. If you are a feminist, it seems, you are in charge of the party manifesto and responsible for all actions taken since Simone de Beauvoir. It always amazes me how angry some of these men are. You can express all sorts of daft things online but once you start flirting with feminism you’re fair game. I posted a question on a closed professional FB group yesterday – asking about gender mix in a (technical) subspecialty of our profession. After my research I was wondering if this non-patient area attracted more men.  Not because it is a leadership role, but because people working in that area do less “emotion work” (usually associated with women).  The majority of the responses were helpful and neutral, and didn’t seem to confirm what I thought at all (which was useful!). However, a couple of the guys seemed to think I should shut up and sit down. I was surprised and shocked; this site has always been a great source of information and collaboration. Why (I thought as I opened a bottle of wine at home) would anyone express this online to their colleagues all over the world? If I had been looking at race, would they have told me to back off because things were fine just the way they were? There are loads of amazing feminist men that will read this with sympathy and understanding, and thank goodness for them because they are helping us change things one unpleasant interaction at a time. In the meantime I decided to share this (after a lot of thought and with names changed) because this happens and if we don’t talk about it and/or step in it will continue.*

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*And a virtual sisterly fistbump to “Sarah J” !

Your tissues have issues

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I went to my first Yin yoga class last week. Rather alarmingly I was the only person who showed up, which meant I got a lot of personal attention. The instructor, Lisa, gave me the run down – Yin is meant to go deep, to the level of the fascia, and poses are held longer than traditional yoga. There is lots of time to reflect, Lisa told me, and sometimes emotions will rise up. “Your tissues,” she said, “have issues”. The hips hold anger, our shoulders are stiff and sore because they often hold the weight of the world.

I loved this, as I lay with my face on a bolster in child’s pose, I thought about the reading I had been doing about embodiment, how feelings can become carried in the body. In my “real life” as a radiation therapist and researcher, I have pretty much stripped the emotion from my academic work. Although as clinicians we need to be empathetic, compassionate and connect with the people we meet in the treatment room, this caring and warmth is discouraged in a publication. We can get angry at the system, the restrictions, the endless edicts to measure more, work harder – but that is tamped down when we’re at the podium talking about the latest lean initiative and how it makes our work lives better. I’ve said before that starting this doctorate has reintroduced me to finding other ways to speak and share, ways that involve hearts as well as minds.

Scientific dispassion emerges from the old idea that research should be value neutral, conducted by a dispassionate observer. This (male, White, Christian etc) constant observer is mainly unquestioned. It was a revelation to begin to read some feminist researchers who pointed out that this doesn’t always serve us well (at least the non-White, non-male portion of the population). My chosen lens is critical theory, where people feel pretty passionate about stuff! It is meant to be emancipatory, to make a difference in the world – emotions are part of the work, not a distraction to be written out. Feelings including pain, old hurts, injustices can be triggers to make things right, to change (at least part of) the world. Shame and rage can become the motivation for striving for recognition and political resistance, sometimes it is only by “regaining the possibility of active conduct that individuals can dispel the state of emotional tension into which they are forced” (Honneth, p. 138).

Feminist research eschews the emotion vs reason binary and admits us, whole, into the messy business of finding out. Emotions are triggers that something is up, can flag a wrongdoing, transgression or injustice. Our prof this week told us “you are allowed to be passionate”  – and I agree, without that why would we be doing this often difficult and frustrating work?

Reference:

Honneth A. The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. 1995.

Where does this quotation end?

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….said my prof as she tried to unravel my latest draft paper. A good question and one I have been mulling over at length.  In the spirit of academic metaphors, at the moment I feel my reading is like a game of pick up sticks or perhaps Jenga. I can’t touch one thing, or idea, without bumping up against another.  A good friend who has been through this told me that “after the proposal” was the best time in her professional doctorate, you have the ground work done and can actually get on and do the thing you’ve been working towards for (often) years.  That bit before the proposal though, and before the comprehensive exam? That’s the teetering Jenga tower, the mess of sticks … the time when you realise how much you don’t know and what it’s going to take to stand up in front of the comprehensive exam panel, your supervisory committee and convince them that you’re ready to get going.

So my reading has been around theory, both queer and feminist, and then a quick tour around my conceptual framework – meaning what concepts will be foundational to my future work and how do they fit together? My research question is how do LGB radiation therapists manage their identities at work? How do they negotiate the complexities of coming out – and how do they decide? When you unpack this idea it’s obvious some work will have to be done on non-heterosexual identities, what “being out” means and why it’s (still) an issue. Our fundamental idea of being “professional” relies on an underlying and usually unarticulated assumption that the person at work is male (rational, unemotional), straight, white, able bodied etc. (Colgan and Rumens, 2015).  So sexual orientation in the workplace is an area of research that has examined this tension – with a small subset that looks at the health care workplace.  It’s also good to see a growing body of work on improving the experience of queer patients, this will also be important to look at – although most of it assumes they (we) are a “problem” to fix  (with our inconveniently high rates of cancer, mental illness and whatnot).

From my own experiences, I think the results won’t be unequivocally “this is what it is like”, but I do have a sense that some of the issues above will be important. There are likely others that I can’t see yet, or might not know until I have talked to the participants of the study. But I’ve already found a chance reference; discussion or recommendation can open up a new way of looking at something.  A paper I found by accident, for example, that looked at how LGB practitioners manage clinical examination of their patients (including scenarios where they may have a chaperone for an opposite-sex patient). The authors concluded that:

 (LGB) healthcare professionals engage in a complex interplay of identity management strategies to avoid homophobic abuse; as a signal of safety from homophobia and understanding for their lesbian, gay, and bisexual patients and as a desexualisation strategy principally for gay men and their women patients. (Riordan, p. 1227)

 I love the idea of “a signal of safety” – healthcare professionals flagging to queer patients that they are understood, and that they are safe to come out. We strive for that level of cultural competence and empathy for many different groups; it’s rarely discussed for queer patients.  One part of the Jenga tower, one of the entangled sticks but hopefully one that will remain.

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Concept map exercise

References:

Colgan, F., & Rumens, N. (2015). Understanding sexual orientation at work. In F. Colgan & N. Rumens (Eds.), Sexual orientation at work: Contemporary issues and perspectives. New York, NY, USA: Routledge

Riordan, D. C. (2004). Interaction strategies of lesbian, gay, and bisexual healthcare practitioners in the clinical examination of patients: qualitative study. BMJ, 328(7450), 1227–1229