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!
- Stewart, C. “Legal challenge confronts Trinidad’s anti-gay laws”. 76 Crimes
I’ve written previously about the tension, excitement and uncertainty that accompanies researching/talking about/writing about LGBT-ness. Way back last summer we read an excerpt from a book Covering by Kenji Yoshino. It’s a lovely piece about a gay academic, lawyer and professor who initially “passes” as straight – but after a few years comes out. However, he still limits his public actions such as displays of (same-sex) affection, and self-censors what he writes about. Yoshino says “this was not the same as passing, because my colleagues knew I was gay. Yet I did not know a word for this attempt to tone down my known gayness.” His revelation (and the perfect word) comes after reading Erving Goffman’s book “Stigma“. Goffman describes how groups with “spoiled” identities (such as the elderly and the disabled) make a conscious effort to downplay their stigma by what he calls “covering” (or “not shoving it in people’s faces”). Yoshino says “this explained why I wasn’t done with conformity to straight norms when I came out of the closet. The demand not to write on gay subjects was not a demand to pass. It was a demand to cover.”
I also read this with a loud “aha”! That’s what it was called – this self-stigma, the desire to fit in, the “not flaunting it”, this covered life. And what I was doing now was fully uncovering – being more of who I was, and now my uncovered eyes would be seeing a whole lot more. This turned out to be true!
I am co-authoring a paper on LGBT health care – my part is a reworking of a paper from our policy class. My co-author (Sean Ralph) is a clinical therapy radiographer and researcher from the UK who (among other things) facilitates support groups for MSM* with prostate cancer. His input has made the paper about a million times better, more readable and a lot more practical. The paper presents a lot of background, and three main categories of suggestions for improvement. These are changes to the physical environment, improvement in health/intake forms and staff awareness/sensitivity training. In the last few weeks, Sean and I have both been advocating for some of these changes in our respective places of work. Here’s a quick recap of our progress so far:
- Changes to the physical environment: Our paper says: “if the department is involved in any health promotion/awareness campaigns then these should contain inclusive imagery and language”. What happened at work: one of us raised the point at a meeting that we should include LGBT faces in a poster advertising emotional support for cancer patients, the response was “well, any of them could be gay” and “that would be stereotyping.”
- Improvement in health/intake forms: Our paper says: “including information about sexual orientation and gender identity on intake forms is important to help health care professionals (HCPs) better identify the patient’s health needs and social situation and provide better care”. What happened at work: at a meeting of a group revising the organisation’s intake forms one of us asked about adding sexual orientation to the form. The response was “we might upset people” and “why would we need to know that?” One participant pointed out that if we identify LGBT people on a form staff may then discriminate against them.
- Staff awareness/sensitivity training: Our paper says: “unfortunately, many LGBT HCPs have experienced discrimination at work and many health care staff say they don’t feel able to challenge discriminatory language or behaviour”. What happened at work: at a meeting to discuss a new electronic record, one of us raised the issue of having non-binary gender options (not just male/female). The response from the IT person (when the questioner was out of earshot) was to laugh and say “why don’t we also have a section for people who have sex with animals?”
I am not using these examples because I think where we work is particularly bad. I don’t. Most people are genuinely well meaning (except for the idiot in IT, he is obviously a dick). I use them because they are pretty typical – and because it takes effort and energy to bring these things up….and then to keep bringing them up. This is the act of uncovering and it is neither easy nor comfortable.
So – what about acts of cannibalism and homosexuality??? That popped up when I was reading The Self we Live By**. The authors are discussing an ethnographer, embedded in a South American tribe who observes the aforementioned shenanigans. It’s more than a bit homophobic – but makes a great blog title.
*Men who have sex with men
**Thank you Angie Eddy!