[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated and corrected since its original post date of June 26]
Nurse practitioner Teri Bunker, who opened her own medical practice 10 years ago, recalls several patients not returning after learning that she was a lesbian.
Today, 48-year-old Bunker, who runs the five-provider, Portland, Ore.-based Bridge City Family Medical Clinic, says that’s rarely the case anymore. In fact, her sexual orientation, as well as her practice’s open-arms acceptance of — and marketing toward — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) patients has helped her carve out a unique niche in her community. This is especially important for transgender patients, whom she says are often mocked and misunderstood by healthcare providers.
“It’s been a lot easier lately, definitely,” Bunker told Physicians Practice. “I have an HRC [Human Rights Campaign] sticker on my front door to this clinic. I have Advocate magazines in my waiting room, and I advertise on my website as having a special interest in gay, lesbian, and transgender issues. I’m known as a provider who takes care of [these] patients. So there has been more comfort to come out in that regard.”
Just as it’s becoming easier for LGBT physicians to experience a life of equality — just a few hours ago, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and upheld California's same-sex marriage law — times are changing for LGBT physicians and other healthcare providers, too.
As recently as the 1990s and 2000s, LGBT physicians remember lack of acceptance by major medical organizations. Others remember the issue of sexuality being mocked during medical school, and fearing discrimination while undergoing their residency training.
But while the way LGBT physicians are being treated has improved, organizations such as GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality (formerly the Gay Lesbian Medical Association) are still fighting hard to ensure all physicians have the same professional opportunities and privileges, from the time they enter medical school to the end of their professional careers.
How Times Have Changed
Family medicine physician Ted Eytan, who has known he was gay since childhood, hasn’t forgotten the fear he felt of being bullied when he applied to medical school. Although the 44-year-old’s father was a physician, he had no LGBT physician role models in Phoenix, where he grew up. Eytan spent the 1990s in medical school, a time when he believes some medical associations were denying membership to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender physicians.
Perhaps most illustrative of the challenges LGBT physicians faced in the 1990s are Eytan’s recollections of a class he took on LGBT issues in medical school.
“Every medical school at some point has a class on ‘dealing with LGBT,’” says Eytan. “And ours was an absolute disaster. The faculty person came in, was clearly uncomfortable having the conversation … and the students were just throwing stuff out, like, ‘What about the gerbil and Richard Gere?’ sort of questions. I’m watching, I’m looking at the faculty member, and he’s not coming back at them, he’s allowing it.”
What Eytan learned from that experience was that one day, when he would become a med school faculty member, he would teach the class differently. “Later on, at University of Washington, I did lead that class, 10 years later and it was awesome,” says Eytan. “I walked in, and said, ‘whether or not you know it, 10 percent of you are LGBT and here’s how it’s going to be.’ It was a wonderful experience. We set a different norm.”
Eytan works fulltime as the physician director for the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health in Washington, D.C., a high-tech meeting and event space designed to spark conversations about health.