“I pretty much knew since I was 12 or 13 when those damn underwear models caught my eye - just you know casually flipping through catalogues and looking at underwear sales - and I thought “oh my god abs. I went to a public high school in a really small town. I never dated any girls because I knew I was super gay, and even though I had a good support system and all, I was just not ready to come out. I went to prom with a lesbian, and we were super cute in our prom pictures.
I purposefully waited until I got to undergrad to come out. Literally on the first day I could not wait to come out to my roommate and start anew. That happened on the first night, he was cool about it, and things were good from there. I ended up telling my parents later my freshman year of college, and my mom didn’t believe me at the time. It was very awkward.
Later on a weekend trip to go home, I was waiting to talk to her late at night. I went up to her while she was watching a pre-recorded episode of Oprah and told her I was gay. She still didn’t believe me so she started asking, ‘oh how do you know?’
‘I don’t know, mom. I just feel like I know.’ So that was a little bit jarring for her, but since then I haven’t had any issues with my family or pushback from them. I think that when people ask ‘how do you know?’ they’re really asking *why?* In further conversations with my mom she said that, ‘I just wanted to protect you because the world is a harsh place, and I want to make sure you didn’t put yourself in a vulnerable position when you didn’t need to.’ I later learned that one of my mom’s childhood friends growing up was gay and had died from HIV/AIDS, so that was probably something that influenced my mom’s reactions. But regardless, it’s my identity, and I’m really happy to be part of this community. Once you claim or lean into that vulnerability, you realize how much you can learn about yourself.
Fast forward to my senior year of college and studying Econ, I was exploring my career options through an internship I had in New York. Around that time there was the housing market collapse of 2008, and seeing all that go down, it just didn’t feel like right being in a finance industry at that point. Even so, I still acquired all this business knowledge, so I wanted to put it to good use and became a nursing home manager for a few years.
There was a physician that came to the nursing home every two weeks to check up on people and ask them questions. At that point, I hadn’t had thoughts about going to med school, but from seeing the doctor do his job I decided that I could totally be a physician.
So I started taking some prerequisite classes while working, gradually getting all my courses in. I thought back to the time I spent in New York where I developed some great friendships in the community. Having those friends gave me more of a sense of community than college ever provided, something I didn’t know how much I needed until I had it.
Those experiences inspired me to give back to that community, so I started volunteering with an HIV testing organization in Kalamazoo alongside my classes. I wanted to contribute to an area that I believe needed my help.
It was an exciting time, now that I think about it, because PreP had just been introduced. It was just coming onto the market, and it was amazing being a part of the first wave of advocates for it. There were a ton queer individuals coming in and having issues with their provider giving them PreP and really just not being informed about it, which is where I came in and filled in the blanks.
I eventually got into med school and knew that I wanted to do something with the queer community in some way. My classmate and I decided to use our volunteer hours for something that was based in the queer community. It was a joint effort in creating Queering Medicine, and he’s gone some much further in building the partnerships. It is amazing to see the work that we put into it and what it has transformed into. And I do have to say from a peer-to-peer standpoint, I’ve learned so much about how to build grassroots community networks. I can do business transactions and outreach in a professional setting. I am comfortable having a chat with my neighbor, but Queering Medicine is such a different model compared to what I’m used to. The organization is still going strong, and we have a growing interest in the Lansing community. They’re doing really great work with the Salus Center, pouring more than 100 hours into that partnership.
Right now I want to go into dermatology, and my interest in LGBTQ healthcare is part of that driving force. There’s still a lot of work to discover with respect to describing what populations are at risk for certain dermatologic conditions and even with the documentation of sexual orientation and gender identity data. They only have binary gender options for clinical trials at this time, which is just sort of ludicrous to me because it’s more standard across academic literature. It’s an issue in academia because it’s not unveiling characteristics that are worth knowing about our populations. So yeah I’m interested in pumping out some publications and the queerness that exists in dermatology.
I think that, collectively, we need to realize that we have to transition from hearing history to writing it. We are the people who are putting in the effort to make it into those books, so we should be appropriately represented.
There are still health disparities in the queer community, and as queer people, we are the ones who bear witness to those struggles and inequities. It’s important as future physicians and leaders that whether or not we know it, someone is looking up to us and entrusting us with their care. We have the potential to be agents of change. We may not be able to get to equality within our lifetimes because history dictates so; but if we can come together in some way, see through the bulls**t of politics, and really encourage conversation not just with other queer people but with non-queer communities through stories, we can make a difference.
Some advice I have for LGBTQ+ individuals pursuing medicine...
I was out on my medical school application, and I was super happy about it because I think of it as more of a strength rather than a weakness.
I can understand that some people aren’t out on their application because they don’t feel like they need to disclose that information or because they fear the repercussions. But if it’s part of my identity and I’m trying to share that with others, then it’s really difficult to dismiss all that time and effort that I’ve poured into the queer community. I would still recommend that people be out, but then if they’re not ready for it, then that’s okay, too, because everyone has their own timeline.
You are not alone. It’s okay to reach out to these organizations if you are feeling alone. They can help you celebrate you and help you realize the best parts of you.” -Wyatt Shoemaker MS4, Grand Rapids, MI (he/him/his)