Coming Out to Our Patients: Dilemmas of Bedside Nursing

I’m out. I’m out to most everyone; even some of my closest colleagues are aware. But, just when I think I have finally conquered my own discomfort with my coming-out process and embraced myself, my patient asks me: “Are you married?”

Besides the fact that the respiratory therapist, who knows that I’m gay, is giggling under his breath, I remain externally un-phased. Yet, so many thoughts run through my mind, including how to answer the very simple question: “Am I married?”
Does he think I’m heterosexual? Is he talking about Gay Marriage? Do I finally “look” gay? Am I giving off vibes that cause him to question my sexuality? Why do people ask me this question? What if I just got out of a terrible divorce—do they really want to open that can of worms? This is the intensive care unit. Do people ask their doctors this question? I mean, he’s hemo-dynamically unstable, technically, so my answer could potentially cause a code.¬†

I reply, “well, I was ALMOST married…once.” He replies, “Well, that boy was a fool.”
So, he DOES think I’m heterosexual. Now I wish I’d come out.

In the grand scheme of things, my sexuality in the workplace doesn’t matter. Nor is it really anyone’s business. But the more I’ve thought about it, I admit that I dread having that conversation with my physician colleagues, nursing team, or patients. As a newly graduated nurse practitioner, I worry that if I “turn out to be gay”, it will affect my ability to get the job I want. And, yet I’m lying about myself…. Why should I feel concerned that in disclosing my sexuality to a patient, I could create an uncomfortable nurse-patient relationship and sabotage the day?

How many bedside nurses encounter my issue? I am very curious to find out how nurses respond to this category of questioning and why, and explore the results of their disclosure or non-disclosure. What are nurses’ fears surrounding this dilemma? My suspicion is that nurses may fear the repercussions of a hospital/nursing culture which has unintentionally exempted patients from adhering to expected behaviors; thereby creating a hostile work environment.

Despite the progressive leaps nursing has made, nurses are still a very stereotyped profession in all kinds of ways. Patients have wild imaginations and forget boundaries while hospitalized. We are sexualized, idolized and stripped of credibility at the same time. We are a mystery profession to many patients who are led astray by television and prime time news. We wear white hats and mini skirts and heels and are armed with syringes and needles the size of a shot gun. We can be someone’s greatest fantasy and someone’s worst nightmare. But we aren’t gay—the male nurses are gay— not the women.

How do I overcome this dilemma which stems from the fear that patients falsely link my accountability and expertise to my sexuality? The answer seems simple, but it isn’t. For someone as active in social justice as I am, I feel ashamed to even experience this, and vulnerable to be sharing it. But, even strong individuals have insecurities. To my patients: I’ve been dishonest, and I apologize, but be prepared for the possibility that I may shock you, because I can’t hide any longer how proud I am to know myself and how genuinely I love…

About laurabrimberry

Hailing from California, I'm a critical care nurse and hopefully soon to be nurse practitioner with an interest in LGBTQI health topics. I am particularly interested in transgender health and its role in nursing education and practice. I'm so excited to learn from your work and receive meaningful feedback! Let's talk soon!
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One Response to Coming Out to Our Patients: Dilemmas of Bedside Nursing

  1. I, too, find odd that patients find it acceptable to ask these sort of questions. When the answer to, “Are you married?” is yes, it tends, in my experience, to be followed by, “Do you have kids? Why not?”

    When I was working in long term care, I used to wear relatively subtle rainbow earrings from time to time, to let any LGBTQI patients know I was safe to talk to. The main outcome, however, was for a couple of residents to launch into homophobic rants. Not directly at me, but indirectly (complaining about Glee or out contestants on American Idol). So if I had been any more explicitly out, I don’t imagine it would have gone well.

    Having seen nurses of color told to “just deal” with having racial slurs directed at them by patients, I agree that we’ve created a hostile work environment. Now, when dealing with patients who have dementia or are similarly mentally incapacitated, I agree that our hands are somewhat tied. But we really do need to set better boundaries with those who are able to understand or remember them.

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