When your patient asks you if you have a boyfriend…and you’re a lesbian

I started working in the hospital at the end of January. Since then, I have been asked about my relationship status by what present as mostly cisgender white heterosexual men on a number of occasions. Sometimes it’s someone your own age. Sometimes it’s someone older. Sometimes it’s someone who’s really old. Up until now, I have been pretending I didn’t hear the question or just smiling and saying I don’t have a boyfriend. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how I am going to react moving forward. As a cisgender white femme who apparently doesn’t “look gay”, perhaps I could leverage my privilege to start having conversations about difference. Of course, I have considered continuing to skirt or avoid answering these questions, which frankly have nothing to do with our relationship as nurse and patient, however my silence is a privilege that benefits no one. Of late, I figure perhaps the next time one of my patients asks me about my boyfriend, I will clarify that what I have is a girlfriend. I would smile and I would do it generously, careful to protect our therapeutic relationship. The thought of making my queerness visible at work with my patients scares me. What if someone doesn’t want me to care for them when they find out? What if they say awful things? It’s a vulnerable place for me to go which makes me reflect on just how privileged I am to have the ability to feel safe because I can hide my difference. 
I am beginning to wonder if this is an opportunity for some sort of upstream patient teaching about difference. Nursing is my leverage point as it expands my access to the center. This is where my work is and it is where I can effect real change. I imagine there are other people like me who can begin to normalize difference from the center. People who are of difference and occupy structural positions of power could begin having conversations about what makes us different. People listen to white people so white people need to have difficult conversations with other white people about white privilege. We need to start to figure out what we can do with our privilege that will begin to pull differences from the margin and into the center. So that those who have been historically marginalized – specifically and intentionally Black, Indigenous and People of Color – see themselves represented in a way that white people take for granted. This is a time that calls for change. Queer nurses have a unique opportunity to challenge normative scripts by initiating generous conversations with people who don’t see us as different because they can’t see our difference. I don’t imagine that this involves outing ourselves to every patient however given an opportunity to clarify that I don’t have a boyfriend and in fact, I have a healthy, loving relationship with a woman means that I can leverage my privilege in a way that disrupts heteronormative spaces that fail to reflect difference. This would also entail having conversations with colleagues that gently challenge heteronormative narratives that govern workspaces. I have found that this feels like a safer space for me to challenge the narrative but it’s time to move outside that space now. It’s time to get to work on expanding the center so that difference is an expectation, not a surprise.

About Jennifer Lane

Nurse, lesbian, wife, stepmom, and PhD Candidate.
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6 Responses to When your patient asks you if you have a boyfriend…and you’re a lesbian

  1. This is really interesting, I am starting out on my doctoral dissertation and want to look at how (if) LGB identity affects the patient-provider relationship. I am a queer radiation therapist – who never came out to patients but the repercussions of that continue to intrigue me. Your post has shifted my thinking into areas of power and privilege. Do you know anyone working in this area? Thank you!

    • I’m not aware of anyone working in this area. It’s just something that I’ve been reflecting on. That being said, I am interested in the subject and would love to continue the conversation.

    • peggychinn says:

      I am also not aware of anyone working specifically in this area, but you might consider connecting with GLMA – the nursing Summit and annual conference is coming up in St. Louis in September! See the website for more details – this is a terrific opportunity to network and find others doing research in your area of interest! https://glmanursing.org/

  2. Thanks both! I am interested in queer phenomenology as an approach. It’s quite new to me but looks like it will fit. I will check out the conference. I am blogging about my EdD here https://doctoralbraindump.wordpress.com/ so will continue to work on the “coming out to patients” idea..
    Meanwhile – love the site and I will check in often! I always found (when voicing this) people would say “oh, I (or they) would be fine with it, it’s not a big deal” without realising the continual emotional angst and work involved with anyone who is queer coming out, let along at work, to patients in our care. So thank you again for raising this!

    • I work with Dr. Lisa Goldberg who uses queer phenomenology as her methodology for research on perinatal health care. Using Iris Marion Young and Sarah Ahmed, she is able to attend to the compexities in queer invisibility within perinatal care relationships. So her work may be of use to you.

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