May 19th, 2014

Perception vs. Reality: The LGBTI Struggle and Experience

By Carl Gustafson

By Carl T. Gustafson and Andrew M. Harrison

Last Tuesday, the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine’s Office for Diversity held its third Discussions in Diversity event. The four panelists were Ann M. Farrell (Mayo Clinic Librarian and Secretary of Mayo Clinic’s LGBTI Employee Resource Group), Joseph D. Gallego (student, Mayo Medical School), Dr. Stacy A. Rizza (Director of Mayo Clinic’s HIV clinic and Associate Dean of the Mayo School of Health Sciences), and Dr. Alisa I. Walz-Flannigan, Ingrid (Assistant Professor of Medical Physics). This event was moderated by Dr. John M. Knudsen (Consultant in Radiology and Medical Director of Mayo Clinic’s Office of Health Equities and Inclusion). The first of these events was held last summer, spanned the topics of race and ethnicity in higher education, and was covered in a quite engaging blog written by a very welcome guest blogger (Bennett G. Childs). The second Discussions in Diversity event, entitled “Cultural Competency”, was held this past December and certainly seemed to stew as much interest and stimulating conversation as our founding fathers stewed in their great “melting pot” of nations. This past week’s event was pointed at “the experience of the LGBTI community in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine: perception versus reality.” Quite the title! And it seems our expert marketing team deserves a raise as the seats were packed and discussion was vibrant. We would be surprised if next time they don’t auction off tickets and offer a concession stand full of nachos and cotton candy. If you missed it…well, get the minutes. Hopefully the next event will be recorded. But you will have to wait until our fourth event to have the full experience, and let us tell you, it will be worth the wait.

Let me elaborate on why I (CTG) chose to co-author this blog post, as the topic is a little out of character for me. I have no affiliation with the LGBTI community. The only real ties that I have to the LGBTI “cause” (if you will) would be a few friends who are gay, lesbian, or bi. If we could measure the strength of relation to the LGBTI community among those in attendance last Tuesday, I feel certain that I would be found in the lower quartile of strength. As a Christian, lending my presence, or my writing, in support of the LGBTI community might raise a few eyebrows, but it isn’t the first time I did something that bothered those in the Bible belt and it definitely will not be the last. Feeling like I had little to add to the discussion in terms of perspective or personal experience, I attended this “Discussions in Diversity” event for two reasons: imagination and courage. I can imagine myself in a situation where something central to my identity and personhood is questionable among some groups and mocked among others for no reason other than cultural convention or religious persuasion. The pressure to conform, to blend, in this hypothetical situation, would be formidable. There would be looming questions of self-doubt shadowing every new acquaintance, at least at first. I can tell you that I’ve been in situations similar to that with which I am trying to relate, but those trying times have been few and far between. I can imagine that this environment would truly be intimidating. It would require courage to hold under pressure; daily conviction to live with authenticity and genuine transparency; personal integrity to be bold and act in good conscience. I do not intend to persuade you that such an environment unconditionally breeds good character, but it seems that these pressures certainly encourage it. Authenticity, transparency and courage are admirable character traits; these qualities were clearly demonstrated by those who shared stories and thoughts during the Discussions in Diversity event. I learned quite a bit about the struggles that LGBTI folks have had along the years, and also about the successes.

There were grand ideas thrown around and great concepts negotiated. Prominent commenters included Steven H. Rose (Dean, Mayo School of Graduate Medical Education), L. Jim Maher (Dean, Mayo Graduate School), Alexandra P. Wolanskyj (Senior Associate Dean, Mayo Medical School), and Fred A. Wills (Administrator, Office of Diversity and Inclusion). Ideas of well integrated support groups, education strategies, and practical means to deal with daily trials – those ideas are valuable and I can imagine (per my hypothetical situation) that I would want a room full of intelligent, creative people discussing those ideas too. In reality, we all have intimidating foes challenging us every day. I think it’s fantastic that we can identify them and support our LGBTI neighbors, in this instance. America is a melting pot – a mixed bag overflowing with change of every kind, filled to the brim with diversity. I like it that way – it’s the quality of America that I am most proud of. There is nothing more American than welcoming your neighbor, no matter their race, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or NFL team affiliation and helping them with their struggle by lending a voice of support. Except for Packer fans. There’s no way I’ll support those guys.

Our panel leaders gather prior to the discussion.

Our panel leaders gather prior to the discussion.

In contrast to my esteemed colleague, I (AMH) wish to add some bland, dispassionate points:

  1. As mentioned by Dr. Walz-Flannigan, LGBTI support groups already exist in Southeast Minnesota, including GLCSMN and GLYSMN.
  2. Ann Farrell referenced a recent social event hosted by both the LGBTI and Somos Latinos Mayo Employee Resource Groups (MERGs) for Medical School’s Second Look Weekend on 04/25. This event was a great recruitment success for exposing prospective medical students to diversity in education and beyond at Mayo Clinic.
  3. Dr. Knudsen referenced the concept and specific example of the Hopkins OUTList. I wish to emphasize this Out List is only one of many (the UCSF OUT List, the NYU School of Medicine OUTlist, and the University of Oregon Outlist) and is a concept we should consider adopting at Mayo Clinic.
  4. Diversity in medicine and education is a “demand force” driving hospitals toward an interest in population health outcomes (thanks to Fred Wills for this reference). If Mayo Clinic is not a national leader in diversity initiatives (including LGBTI), we will merely become a follower, as will hopefully become the case with the Out List example above.

Carl T. Gustafson and Andrew M. Harrison are co-managers of Mayo Clinic’s Diversity in Education Blog. Carl is a student in Mayo Graduate School. Andrew is a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program and a gay male.

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