November 17, 2011

A Lesson from History: What We Haven’t Done for LGBT Americans

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As I check on patients in the hospital each morning during rounds, I wear a small but conspicuous rainbow-colored pin on the lapel of my white coat. The pin is the Caduceus, the best known symbol for medicine in society today (two serpents wrapped around a winged staff), while its colors represent the well-recognized “gay pride flag.” Why do I wear this on my white coat, and is it really appropriate? After all, shouldn’t I keep any personal agenda of mine outside the clinic walls as I take care of patients? After all, who am I, a lowly scientist and mere student in the hospital, to mix politics or my feelings on human rights with my work?

Nobel Laureate A.V. Hill, famous for his contributions to our current understanding of muscle metabolism, published a piece in Nature in 1933 speaking out against the persecution of the Jews just after the Nazis came to power: “Freedom itself is again at stake …100,000 in concentration camps, often for no cause beyond independence of thought or speech, something over 1,000 scholars and scientific workers have been dismissed …”  He goes on to urge other scientists to speak out and be activists against this early anti-Jewish discrimination in Germany. It will give you a cold chill to then read the reply from a Prof. J. Stark in an issue of Nature soon after that, who states that Germany is merely attempting to “curtail the unjustifiable great influence exercised by the Jews” and explains that such prominent scientists (e.g. Einstein) have “voluntarily given up their posts” while those in concentration camps are there “because they have been guilty of high treason …”  Of course, we now know what came from these early anti-Semitic movements, and history helps us easily side with the morally correct view on the issue. While current discrimination does not begin to approach the travesty of the Holocaust, it helps to remember that the Holocaust began as simple prejudice against a group of people.

One need not look far back in our own country’s history to see embarrassing examples of blatant abuse and bigotry toward other humans. It was once commonplace for Americans to own slaves; even more than a century after emancipation, the long, hard battle for equal rights with white citizens continues. Likewise, women were once not allowed to vote, much less participate in most positions outside the home until relatively recently. Even today, women may struggle with unequal pay for equal work in the workplace.

Luckily, these “norms” of society have been gradually changing as one, then two, then more people stand up and speak out against them. Today, with history on our side to offer important perspective, it is easy to criticize our ancestors and their seemingly tremendous ignorance. But what do we do today that future generations may judge us by? In one of our major historical guffaws, we now discriminate against people based on their sexual preferences. Sadly, this is something we may all one day have to answer for our grandchildren. Imagine the questions: Grandpa, did homosexuals break the law? Were they hurting someone? What if someone decides that liking chocolate ice cream is bad — will I be denied rights because of what I prefer in my personal life?

All questions of nature vs. nurture aside, the simple fact remains that we have discriminated against a large population of people for a long time for no crime or disruption. Fortunately, this great country has a rich history of at the very least trying desperately to correct our grave discriminations of the past (e.g. affirmative action, title IX in sports). But unfortunately, these stopgap solutions often deliver too little, too late, and with many problems. In the current situation, the solution could be simple — grant all people, regardless of sexual preference, equal rights. This includes the right to choose a partner one loves and marry that partner should one choose. Individuals and religions would still be free to define marriage as they see fit.

A.V. Hill used his prominent position in society to speak out against discrimination toward a group of people; imagine if he had been better heard. In medicine, too often lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are given poor care by clinicians with little understanding or empathy for who they are. While my simple gesture of wearing this lapel pin might not change anything, my hope is that when my LGBT patients see this, they will know they have a health care provider who respects and cares for them and feels they deserve equal rights and equal standing in society. If respecting all people’s rights is ever considered inappropriate or unprofessional in the clinic, then I’d rather take off the white coat and walk away before I take off this pin. I hope you too will find your small way of supporting those we as a society continue to discriminate against.

Matthew Goodwin is a third-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He may be reached at mlg2008@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Matthew L Goodwin