The Pink Badge Effect

Last year I wrote an article for the med. student newspaper about my experience of homophobia on hospital wards, although I wrote it from the point of view of patients overhearing comments which can be perceived as homophobic, whether they are or not, and what effect this could have on them. It was inspired by my experiences in hospital worst wearing a pink ID badge holder for a year to see what effect, if any, this would have on how people interacted with me.

I’ll reproduce the original text below, with the PDF of the published article here.

Since then, I’ve been tweeting a lot more and seeing other people’s experiences of similar things. Before deciding firmly on medicine as a future career, whilst in school I remember wondering what it would be like to be a gay doctor. I had a narrow view of what it would be like to be a doctor (as most school kids do) despite some great work experience, and I hadn’t met or heard of any gay doctors at the time. With a lack of gay role models in the form of teachers at my school, I had little to go on. I’ve recently been discussing this on twitter with gay doctors and together we’re planning to make an @ItGetsBetter project video for anyone considering going into medicine who may be concerned their sexuality may become a barrier during their training or future career.

Tomorrow’s Doctors states that a good doctor must not discriminate against patients because of their gender, race, colour, socioeconomic status or their sexuality. As students, this stance is encouraged repeatedly through lectures and, most of the time, through observing the practice of health care professionals in the hospital setting. This is of course a good thing and medical students should certainly aim to adopt a non-judgemental viewpoint in practice. Most medical students at BSMS and hopefully around the UK too are sensible, rational folk who barely need to give this idea a second thought as being indiscriminate is second nature to them. However, to some students and health care professionals, being indiscriminate does not come naturally, and is not a behaviour practiced in life outside the hospital. In fact, for some, discrimination is actively encouraged. Whilst many health care workers may not vocally express judemental opinions, they may be associated with organisations who frequently do, such as certain churches or een entire religions. Further more, colleagues and patients may also recognise this association and extrapolate the beliefs to apply them to an individual. Is it possible then, for these individuals to effectively practice with their indiscriminate work hats on, when come the end of a shift it’s off with the fair-to-all cap and on with the judgemental dunce hat that is encourage in their group of society? One would hope that the answer was yes, however personal experiences and various witnessed or recounted events would suggest that perhaps the moral hat-swapping doesn’t happen as smoothly as one would hope. Doctors are usually respected by patients and colleagues, and as such their opinions hold a certain weight not necessarily afforded by the layman. In fact, research shows that if a doctor displays views against something such as smoking or obesity, a patient is more likely to adopt similar views, this altering their behaviour. It would be a fair assumption to say that if a doctor were to be associated with or even actually display homophobic views, then this could contribute to the normalisation of homophobia. Below are some entirely true and totally unacceptable examples of such comments that are helping to normalise homophobic views and language. They are comments that would not be out of place in a current-day school, where the words “gay” and “faggot” are used as simple derogatory terms for anything from homework to another pupil. School children should know better, but should also be educated better in an attempt to change their behaviour. Doctors and other health care professionals who use such language and display such views, even by association, should consider whether their behaviour is compatible with their role in society.

During a placement in general medicine in third year, a well-respected consultantmans faculty member made a remark about me, in front of me, to a patient during a busy ward round. It was essentially based on the fact that the patient was an ex-soldier and that I was wearing a pink ID cardholder. The comment was: “well clearly HE couldn’t be in the army”, to which the patient and the rest of the ward round (including fellow students) laughed. Now, this could potentially be seen as a harmless attempt at a joke to put the patient at ease during a bustling ward round, and having been of the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse far worse than this, it was hardly outrageous. None-the-less it was a comment based on a presumed sexuality that was entirely unnecessary from a consultant who should know better.
A more direct comment on sexuality was made to me and a colleague whilst on an ambulance job delivering to the RSCH’s A&E. A junior doctor this time looked at the pair of us and decided it was entirely appropriate to tell us in front of the patient that our pink examination gloves were “a bit too gay”. As an aside, the pink gloves, which can also be found in the medical skills lab at the Audrey Emerton, are actually an awareness campaign and fundraiser for breast cancer charities and so quite the opposite of being “too gay”. Again, not a particularly vicious attack but another reminder that our supposedly non-judgemental colleagues perhaps haven’t tightened the bow of their unbiased bonnets quite enough. I expect and experience, homophobic attitudes from patients on occasion, which is an accepted part of the job, even in Brighton. When these attitudes come from people who one is expected to stand alongside in a team, then one cannot be blamed for questioning how well these attitudes are shelved when it comes to patient care.

Association with homophobic organisations or religions can also affect how a gay person feels about another professional. Healthcare professionals who openly support organisations known to oppose gay equality, such as the Coalition for Marriage, can make gay colleagues, juniors and students feel inferior and offended. Whilst personal opinion is free for all, it is difficult to work coherently with, or study under someone who you know holds the opinion that you are fundamentally wrong as a person and should not be afforded equal opportunity such as marriage. If professionals can be made to feel this way around individuals associated with such organisations, then if a gay patient were to know of their carers personal views by association then how may they be made to feel? And would their care be in any way affected, if only subconsciously, by caters with such views? It would go against everything laid out by Tomorrow’s Doctors.

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One comment

  1. TTBA(v)JD · October 31, 2012

    Did you know that the BSMS oath (equivalent of/modernised version of Hippocratic oath) includes not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation?
    If only the oath, and Tomorrow’s Doctors, could include “gender identity” as well… (separate to gender as gender identity would include trans/transitioning/non-normative gender identities further than the bog standard “gender”)

    Very well written article.

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