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Part One of an Ongoing Series:

By Becki Legg, 4th Year Medical Student

Being "Out" in Medical School

    Hi. I am Becki Legg. I am a fourth year medical student at Stanford. I came out to my classmates about my sexual orientation after my first year of medical school. It was a difficult process, but in the end I am glad that I made the choice to live an open life.

    I have been asked by some people how I have reconciled being gay and being a medical student. My reconciliation has been a long process but it has not revolved around being a medical student. Instead, it has involved coming to terms with being gay and with not being petrified of someone finding out that I am gay. When I first came to the medical school, I invented a male fiancée so that I could have some means of talking about my partner whom I had left back in my home state of Arizona. I was so afraid that my gayness would hurt my career that I lied to everyone including my roommate and best friends. The energy it took to do this was enormous and I know it interfered with my class work.

    Luckily, one of my friends needed a house mate to share a house with her and I decided that if I were to move in, she would have to know about my girlfriend. That was the best decision I have ever made. After I told my new roommate, I told someone else and then someone else until over the last year and half I have been completely out and visible as a lesbian in the medical school.

    I have found the gay community at the medical center to be small but great. From my perspective there are two aspects to the community here at Stanford. First, there are the students. Unfortunately, there are few of us. Only about two members of each class of 86 students are openly gay. Others live in the closet and I am convinced that the closet is very small at Stanford. Those of us who are out keep the community at Stanford strong. We organize as many get togethers as our busy schedules allow and one of us has even set up an on-line forum for Stanford Medical School queers. Stewart Blandon developed Stanford Queer Resources which can be found on the internet and contains information about the medical school gay community and a listing of home pages of gay students and staff. Others, myself included, use every opportunity to fight homophobia and the negative stereotypes of gay people that are so pervasive in our society. Not all of our activities as a community are politically oriented. Much of the community of gay and bisexual students here are just plain friendly and supportive of each other. It is nice to know you will never feel alone.

    The second component of the community is the staff of professors, doctors, and other members of the larger Stanford Medical Center community. I am less thrilled about this aspect of the gay community. There are few openly gay doctors or professors. I feel that those who are out seem to be persecuted.

    One of the most popular attendings has just left Stanford and the rumor is that her lesbianism may be a component of her difficulties with the Stanford administration. I don't know the truth in this case but I certainly must say that I could believe this rumor and that saddens me. I am, however, optimistic about things improving in the larger community because it seems every rotation I am on I meet either a gay attending or resident, or I work with a straight attending or resident who are noticeably sensitive to gay issues. This makes me think that the old guard of homophobic individuals do not have much longer to control the larger medical center environment.

    I am now mostly out on the wards. I do leave my LESBIAN forehead sticker at home when I start a new clerkship, but I have rarely made it through a clerkship without outing myself to the people I work with. My partner and I have even been to two team dinners together as a couple. I have never had a bad reaction from anyone to whom I have outed myself. My partner has been the life of the two dinner parties!

    However, during one of the clerkships in which I did not out myself, I was verbally harassed by one of my residents. The harassment was broadly based but the homophobic component was intense. I filed a formal complaint against this resident and he was reprimanded quickly. The Dean of student affairs, the chair of surgery, the chief resident, and the surgery clerkship director all supported me on this issue. These reactions to my being an openly lesbian student have made me happy to be out and I actually feel that it has educated my peers in positive way about what gay life is really like.

    There is, however, only one sacrifice that I have made now that I am an out clinical student. Many of my patients have homophobic beliefs and have made homophobic statements to me. My sacrifice to this point has been only subtly letting them know that their statements are false or sometimes I even say nothing. I wish that I could educate them and make them see that being gay is not bad or wrong and that gay people are not perverts. Gays are normal people with everyday lives not so different from their own.

    I have also been asked whether being openly gay affects an applicant's post-graduate educational opportunities. I do not know the answer to that question. It is something I think about all the time. My queries to those who have gone before me have been mixed. Some have told me it will ruin my chances and others have told me it will only help me. Right now I am going through the residency application process and am struggling with whether or not to be out on my applications. At this point, I have decided not to mention my gayness in my written applications but in interviews I will probably out myself if I get the chance.

    My reasoning is this: I don't want application reviewers to form an erroneous first impression before they meet me and I also don't want to take a chance on ending up in a homophobic program so I want the reviewers to know what they could potentially end up getting. If I get the chance, next year I'll write a follow-up essay and let everyone know how my application process went. I hope these questions and answers help elucidate what the Stanford queer community is like and what being a gay medical student means. Most of all I hope those who are gay are empowered to be out and that those who are not have a better understanding of our lives.

Editor's Note:

    Be sure to check out the MedWorld's Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual MD Discussion forum. It's your opportunity to voice your opinions and to share feedback about this MedWorld article.

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