Welcome to Theodora Sirota, who is now a contributor to our blog!
As an advanced practice psychiatric nurse, I am aware that heterosexism has dominated most LGBTQ health care. Sexual minority communities experience health care disparities mainly due to homophobia and lack of appropriate education and /or interest in LGBTQ health care needs within the largely straight health care system. I am also aware that LGBTQ health care policy and initiatives have been spearheaded by LGBTQ professionals and it seems obviously appropriate that they should be taking the lead. However, as a straight ally interested in advancing LGBTQ health care, I want to be able to network and connect to others with the same agenda and especially to LGBTQ health care providers who can help extend and shape my own point of view.
Last year I had a very interesting and somewhat disturbing experience as I attended and presented some research at a conference related to LGBTQ health care. The attendees were LGBTQ physicians, nurses, psychologists and others with LGBTQ health-related clinical and research interests. Some, including myself, were straight allies interested in advancing LGBTQ health and human rights. In fact, as my career as a psychiatric mental health nursing clinician and nurse educator and researcher has progressed, LGBTQ health has become my primary professional interest and concern. This was my first conference experience where I knew I’d have the opportunity to meet and talk with prominent leaders and thinkers in the LGBTQ health care community. I was also excited and interested to attend presentations that would allow me to get more immersed in hearing LGBTQ professionals’ current perspectives on LGBTQ health care. Unfortunately, I believe most straight allies have too little direct experience listening to their LGBTQ colleagues and I really wanted to learn as much as I could.
However, at that conference, I experienced a kind of reverse homophobia, or “heterophobia.” It was immediately clear to me, as a straight woman, that I was part of a small minority attending the conference. That in itself was OK; interestingly, my brain isn’t geared to thinking of myself as being in a minority anywhere I go and this realization in itself was revelatory and instructive. But, although a few people did react warmly to me, I felt basically shunned, marginalized, ignored, and very much alone, even when I tried to reach out to interact with people who had been introduced to me. Honestly, at that conference I felt like I was wearing an invisible scarlet letter on my bosom: the big “S” for “straight”. This was a rather eye-opening experience; now I can say that I can truly understand what LGBTQ people must feel in a room filled with mostly hetero folks.
As a straight person who wishes to help eliminate health care disparities and is supportive of social justice for LGBTQ individuals and populations, I don’t intend to stop my scholarship or my clinical interest in advancing LGBTQ health care. However, my experience at the conference made me painfully aware of the fact that there remains a lot of suspicious skepticism and distrust among LGBTQ folks toward straight people who sincerely wish to share and advance their interests. From a historical perspective, I can understand why this is so. However, I would suggest that, at this point in time, not only do straight people need to continue to examine and adjust their homophobic attitudes toward LGBTQ people, but LGBTQ people also need to be more self-reflective about their feelings toward heterosexual allies and attempt to be less heterophobic around straight people who support them. Working on this is critical in a health care climate dominated by heterosexual professionals. Thorough, sensitive health care for LGBTQ individuals and communities cannot be realized until LGBTQ professionals and straight professionals conscientiously work toward forging alliances and mutual understanding that will benefit the advancement of LGBTQ health. LGBTQ professionals need to realize that not all of us are the enemy and not all of us have nefarious agendas. It is imperative that LGBTQ professionals and straight professionals form caring and collaborative partnerships to help end health care disparities faced by LGBTQ people.