How I Got Over Telling My Doctors I'm Gay
Discussing anything about sexual health at the doctor’s office is always awkward. I had been seeing my family doctor for almost 14 years before we fell into the topic, and when it finally came around, I had no idea how to react. I hadn’t even told any of my family that I was gay, let alone my doctor. And to make things worse, I deeply respected him; he was one of the primary people who inspired me to want to be a doctor in the first place. I didn’t want to let him down.
At the time, I was a senior at a tiny high school in Vermont. Before heading off to college, I needed to get a round of vaccines. Three back-to-back stabs in the arm was enough to fill me with dread, never mind the turn our conversation would take.
As my doctor and I sifted through our usual small talk; me running cross country, the service project I was doing, how my job was, he abruptly changed the subject.
“Are you sexually active?” he asked. He had introduced the topic suddenly and without hesitation, as if it were as menial as discussing sports or the weather. It wasn’t just another topic; however, and I’m pretty sure the look on my face made that clear.
Speechless, I stared at him like a deer in headlights. I had no idea that question was coming, and I had less of an idea of how I should respond. Without skipping a beat; however, he cut back in.
“Well,” he said, “make sure you always make sure they’re on birth control, and make sure you’re using a condom for when you’re with the ladies.”
I was very quiet after that. I didn’t even know how to respond, or if I should respond. It never occurred to me until that point that I should have told him about my sexual orientation. So, I left the office (swollen arm and all), my mind racing. I was nervous to tell him about my sexual orientation, for fear of judgement; fear that he’d tell my parents; fear that I’d let someone who I respected down.
As I drove home, I forced those fears to the back of my mind. “I don’t have to address this now,” I thought.
Fast forward five years.
I had moved from Vermont to Portland, Oregon, and was thrilled to be in a real city, buzzing with endless possibility and filled with amazing food. I knew that I had to set up new providers for myself, which I hadnot done before, but two hours and five phone calls to separate offices later I was set up to see a new family doctor. As my first appointment approached, I realized that the time to address my sexual orientation with my doctor was here. I was in a long term relationship and I knew that it was going to come up on my first ever visit; it was inevitable.
The day of the appointment, I recall sitting on the bed in his windowless, fluorescent-lit office, panicking as I waited for him to walk in and dig up the fears I’d buried five years before.
Smiling, he entered the room, greeting me and shaking my hand before launching into the usual small talk I knew. “I’m so happy that the sun is finally shining again,” he said. I chuckled, making some short reply.
“Small talk about the weather…” I thought. “I know where this is going.”
“Any surgeries?” he asked. “Allergies? On any medication? Previous medical conditions?”
My heart was in my throat. Then he crossed the proverbial bridge: “are you sexually active?”
“Are you and your partner using protection?”
Just the one word – partner – completely put me at ease. The fear that I’d tucked away for so long vanished. “Partner.” Who knew that one word could be so critical!
I realized that this person, my new doctor, wasn't going to judge me, or treat me poorly, or casually bring it up with my mother the next time he saw her.
He’s was so nonchalant about it, too. Just casual, running down the list of questions he had as they came to mind, gathering information to provide me the best treatment and judgement-free treatment at that! To think that it only took me moving 2,500 miles from home and forcing myself to get a new doctor in the area to feel okay with talking about my sexual orientation… when I think on it, it’s ridiculous, really!
My new doctor was in that room with me to give me the medical care I needed. It didn’t matter who I was or where I was from and other minute details about me. I nearly laughed thinking back on how scared I had been 5 years earlier.
At that time; however, eighteen-year-old me was terrified. I was scared of how everyone in my life would react to something that only I really knew about myself. Coming out as a teenager is a big deal and it comes with a lot of stress. One addition can change everything in your world instantly. So, now that I was in Portland, in an entirely different world, how did I get over telling my doctors that I’m gay?
I knew that I was in a safe space in the doctor’s office. Regardless of my sexual orientation, I trusted that those looking out for my wellbeing wanted to give me the best care possible. The fact that I’m gay was just another piece of information to help them with the puzzle that is their patient.
Although sometimes frightening, it is important to understand that a doctor is, first and foremost, one who treats and helps heal. Doctors are present to help gather information, piecing it together to come up with a diagnosis which can then lead to a patient obtaining their optimal state of health. Sexual orientation, of course, is a massive piece of this puzzle and can make a huge impact on your doctor’s visits.
If your doctor has the information necessary, they can use that to ensure that your future visits are tailored to your needs. Today, many doctors will display a rainbow sticker in the office, to show that they aren't there to judge you or your lifestyle. Instead, good doctors are there to support you as a person, no matter what.
People come from many different walks of life and it is crucial to be open and receptive to that, especially as a doctor. More than 3% of the American population identifies as LGBT+, and ignoring that fact is a sure way to make a patient feel uncomfortable or unsupported. Using non-specific identifiers, such as the word “partner;” however, demonstrates your understanding of the fact that everybody is different and that you are there to help treat them, not to judge them. After all, that is the premise of what being a doctor is all about.
A year or so later I went back to Vermont to visit. While there, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment with my old family doc.
He was the same energetic, caring man I had known and seen once or twice a year previously. When we got into our small talk about what’s new in my life, I told him that I was gay, and just as he likely would have done all those years before, he responded with a non-judgmental confirmation. We discussed my sexual health and how it pertained to me as a person. We didn’t argue about my orientation. He didn’t laugh at me. Instead, we discussed what was best for me as a patient. I learned that it was okay to talk openly and honestly with my doctors and, for that I am extremely grateful.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences