I've Seen the Loneliness and Homophobic Anti-Blackness of Healthcare in the South

Paul Bernard

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If you ever consider visiting Texas, here are some pointers for you to enjoy your stay.  Ideally, you should have a devotion to all things that come from one of the state’s two largest colleges.  You must hold an equal repulsion for this college’s rival, which is the other large university, whether or not you have ever attended or visited either.  Your favorite discussions should center around high school and college sports, mainly football, the best brand of barbeque sauce sold in supermarkets, and the required upkeep of your oversized pick-up truck. Employment within the oil and gas industry and practicing your rights as a lawful gun owner can, too, deem you as a befitting visitor.  If your passions or issues lie outside of this foundation of Texas pride, then Texas is not the place for you. The favored Southern hospitality in this state is given only to welcomed guests.  

My experiences there as an unwelcome, queer black man living in the South occurred in one of the most selfless lines-of-work around: healthcare.  

I once managed a medicine unit for a rural city’s only hospital that provided services to three main populations:  the poor, the governmentally insured, and non-whites. I also noticed a small yet fairly common HIV+ demographic amongst the patients. The staff of color on the unit found it easier to connect and sympathize with the patients admitted to the floor. However, there were other staffers less capable of such compassion.

One night, a seasoned nurse admitted an HIV-positive patient for an unrelated condition.  After the nurse finished his initial assessments, he scurried out of the room with an expression mixed with anger and disgust.  Within the twelve-hour shift, this nurse only visited the patient once more. At the end of this shift, the nurse revealed his truth:  he feared he’d contract HIV if his patient somehow injured himself. He, then, assumed the patient was also gay, which for the nurse, justified the scarlet letter.  We don’t expect to hear such ignorant statements like this from trained and certified clinicians. Yet no pair of scrubs or a white coat will remedy the deeper issues they may possess.

Many people believe that actions speak louder than words. I have come to learn that actions shout the true essence of a person's core while words wither away, disappearing into the atmosphere once they escape one's mind. 

Of course, no two situations are alike — and our experiences can be complicated, disrupting any sense of certainty or safety. It is always a gamble.

One Friday morning, at the start of a routine physical, my doctor’s attitude was as warm as a Texas summer.  He reviewed my medical record, verifying information until I sensed his slight hesitation around the sexual health section.  The nervousness I expressed as I shared my sexual history was not because I was ashamed of my past: it was merely the vulnerability of sharing a part of myself with a stranger while wearing a revealing green gown.  

However, the white doctor's discomfort grew more as I shared information that he was required to know. He briskly donned his gloves to graze over the lymph nodes beneath my neck, flexed my knees and elbows, and then said that I should be suited for work.  As he left the room, he doffed his gloves, aimlessly tossing them alongside the trash can. I thought to myself “Is this happening because I am black or because I am gay? Could it be a mix of the two?”  

Is it honestly that difficult to treat a patient that is black and queer, someone who seeks to live happily and healthily, with the same respect and detail as any other patient? If treating black and queer patients is as tricky as he made it seem, I would challenge him to live black and/or queer for a lifetime. The real struggle is how we have to navigate such treatment every single day.

Whenever I see black families entering through hospital doors, or couples exiting medical clinics, I cannot help but wonder if there is any real care within healthcare. It took a moment to realize how the South's deeply rooted presumptions of our community influence the care that doctors and nurses choose to, or choose not to, provide to patients. It is a harsh reality to see how a person's apathy infects their relationships and their careers. Unlike refusing to support anti-black or anti-LGBTQ brands, it can be challenging for those who are marginalized to find health services that satisfy our distinctive needs. We will all become patients one day.  But the quality of the care we receive shouldn't change because of someone else’s implicit bias. New York City is now my current home. This makes me more appreciative of the healthcare services I have and even more committed to the work I do. 


About the Author

Paul Bernard (L[G]BT[Q]IA) moved from Houston, Texas to Brooklyn, New York in November 2019 with the intention to live fearlessly. A health scientist by day and an essayist at night, his works focus on his experiences coming-of-age as well as topics about blackness and health. He presently holds a Master of Science degree in Public Health Informatics. When he is away from the desk, Paul often serves his community as a coach to teach seniors how to use electronics. He also enjoys traveling across the world and baking. Chat with Paul, @lookforpaul, on Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

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