"So I came out when I was 15. It was a really wonderful experience - I have very loving parents. Of course it was all a bit uncomfortable but overall, pretty painless. I was supported and didn’t really have any issues with that. The relatively positive experience in high school and with my family from 15 years old and beyond, for me, was a stark difference from what I experienced in healthcare settings. It was really in college when I noticed that my sexual orientation negatively impacted my experience in healthcare. It’s important to note that in college I was out and very comfortable with myself. However, when it came to finding doctors or primary care physicians, it made me so uncomfortable. Even just like going to urgent care or the ER. I would try to find a primary care physician and I went a very long time without one. Which probably sounds strange because I am going to be a doctor in a couple years, I am very excited to be a doctor, but my entire life I have hated seeing doctors because it was very uncomfortable for me…based on not wanting to be out to them and the stigma surrounding my identity. A lot of my feelings about this un-comfortability stemmed from the entry questions. Questions like, ‘are you sexually active?’ *yes*. My answer would then prompt the provider to ask ‘is there a chance you could be pregnant.’ Which for me I’m like…no there’s not a chance. Providers sometimes then continue to say, ‘well even with contraceptives there’s always a chance.’
I know this seems like semantics, and to some a very little thing, but it immediately sets this tone of heterosexuality being thrown in my face. Like I am outside of the circle, outside of the norm, because I don’t apply to this question that is considered normal to ask. So in these environments I never felt comfortable being honest, because they never really gave me a chance to be honest. They easily could have been like, ‘There isn’t a chance you’re pregnant? Okay, explain that to me,’ instead of continuing to assume I am heterosexual by saying ‘condoms don’t work all of the time.’ These interactions kept happening to me, over and over again. At one point I was told I didn’t need a normal screening exam done because I had not been sexually active with a male partner since my last screening. I was still due for one. At the time I was relieved because, honestly who wants to have those types of exams done? Looking back, after being a medical student and learning about preventative health care, it is extremely frustrating to realize that my exam was brushed off solely because my sexual history. Primary care and preventative care is very important and I understand how important honesty is in those settings, but even so I found myself lying. Lying about being sexually active at all to avoid bringing up my sexuality in clearly heteronormative environments and lying to ensure I received the same care regardless of my sexual orientation. Let me be clear, I don’t recommend being dishonest with your PCP, but for me, at the time, it was almost easier to lie then to have the conversation. So I lied for quite a while and I did not have any form of primary care for many years.
More recently, I started looking for queer friendly primary care physicians. Let me tell you, they are very difficult to find. Like, TRULY queer-friendly providers, and that includes therapists. I really tried to search for therapists who would be proficient in addressing mental health issues for queer people and specifically regarding issues surrounding queerness itself. Unfortunately, I ended up with a therapist who advertised that they were queer friendly, but it was clear that she wasn’t trained specifically to help queer people with mental health. My session felt like I was speaking with a straight mom…but not my mom because, again, she’s super cool. I am not saying she was bad, but she was trying so hard to figure out what to say and I could tell she was uncomfortable.
I think it’s about the lived experience. This is why it is so important that sexual and racial minorities be encouraged to pursue careers where they provide care. Personally, it is what drives my passion for a career in pediatrics. I want to be a physician that cannot only help patients but be a safe haven for a queer patient in need. I never had the option of feeling comfortable as I navigated healthcare and I hope I can prevent that reality for all of my future patients.
I think now, in my training as a student doctor, what I really appreciate is the emphasis on how we ask sensitive questions. For example, ‘are you sexually active’ ‘are your partners men women or both.’ Asking questions in a way that is open and allows the patient to be open. I’m not saying we need to ask these questions and have rainbow guns shooting glitter every time it helps a queer person; I’m saying that the questions we ask our patients should not be catered only to one specific group of people. They should be catered to everyone because healthcare is a system meant to help everyone.
My advice to people who are reading this is this:
1) Be honest. I lied for a better part of my adult life about sexual health topics because I didn’t want to face those conversations. But in reality, your health is so much more important than the worry of making an anyone in healthcare feel uncomfortable.
2) Strongly advocate for yourself. Don’t go into any healthcare setting feeling shamed or feeling pressured to answer questions in a certain way because of who you are. Be confident. Be yourself. And stand up for who you are.
I know this is easier said than done, but if you’re with a provider and they say something that makes you feel uncomfortable, call them out. The only way people are going to learn is if they know that there is a problem in their practice of medicine." -Katie Peterson | Grand Rapids, MI | Michigan State University College of Human Medicine (she/them)