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On Being Gay In Medicine

Dr. Mark Schuster is the William Berenberg Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. This essay is based on a speech he gave the featured speaker at the Children’s Hospital Boston GLBT & Friends Celebration in June, 2010.

The first time I stood before a large audience to speak was when I was 13 years old. It was at my Bar Mitzvah. I walked up to the podium, looked out over the sea of faces, and thought to myself, I am a homosexual standing in front of all of these people. And I wondered what would happen if I told them.

That was in 1972, and even mentioning the word homosexual, unless paired with an expletive or derogatory adjective, would have been unacceptable at my synagogue. It would have been unacceptable in my home, my school, or any place I knew. I could not have conceived of telling my doctor. I assumed that I would never say out loud that I am a homosexual. The idea that I would someday be able to stand in an auditorium, stand anywhere, just a few miles from where I live with my husband, our two sons, and our dog, with everything but the white picket fence, was not something I could imagine.

Today I stand on a different stage. The Children’s Hospital Boston GLBT and Friends group asked me to share my story as part of its celebration day. How I got here, what I learned along the way, especially at Children’s, and how the world changed — these are what I will talk about.

A decade after I considered turning my Bar Mitzvah into a public confessional, I entered medical school at Harvard. Some students had started a gay group the year before. They had scoped out the territory, searched for role models, and come up nearly empty. In a creaky old closet, tucked way in the back, they found a world-renowned senior physician at Children’s. He advised against starting the group, offering that it was much better to be secretive about being gay so that no one would bother you. I’ve heard that same advice many times from men and women from earlier generations who had fewer options in their day.

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