Queer Health: Queer Experiences in Medicine


Hello, folks! Benny is taking some much-needed vacation time, so I volunteered to take over this week’s Queer Health column. Of course, I completely forgot that I agreed to this until this afternoon, but better late than never! I am excited to have this opportunity to share a little bit of information about my current research project.

But first, a little background.

I am a cultural anthropology graduate student whose research interests are in queer and medical anthropologies. My thesis project is part of a larger, multi-institutional research project seeking to elicit information about the experiences of queer people in medical environments. Specifically, we are talking to queer medical students, queer doctors, and doctors who work with a large number of queer patients to get an idea about their everyday lived experiences within medical environments.

My specific research topic looks at heteronormativity in medical school. I’m interested in finding out how the socialization process and education curriculum (re)produce heteronormativity in practicing physicians. As a cultural anthropologist, my main methods are qualitative; specifically, I am using person-centered interviewing and participant observation. Using these methods allows me to talk to and observe people to get an idea of what they think of their culture, what they say about how their culture operates, and how they actually behave in their culture. The data will be analyzed using grounded theory.

Research on this topic is almost non-existent. Further, research on queer health and illness in general is severely lacking. The research on these topics that does exist tends to focus on gay men, mental health, HIV/AIDS, and substance abuse. There’s a distinct lack of research on lesbian health (outside of reproduction) and trans* health. Most of the research neglects examining the role of health care providers and the culture of medicine in queer health disparities.

We have not begun data analysis yet as we are still in the process of data collection. However, there are some common themes that are emerging from my discussions with informants.

Image from ACT UP! Philly

First, there’s a severe lack of training and education on queer health issues. All of my informants have told me that they’ve never received any kind of formal training or education on queer health. The only time that sexual orientation appears during their training is in case studies where the patient has HIV/AIDS and is identified as homosexual.

Second, my informants have all talked about the “conservative culture” of medicine. Despite the increased visibility and social acceptance of queer people (well, let’s be honest, mostly lesbians and gay men), medicine continues to operate under a conservative culture where an “old boys club”-type of hegemony reigns. This creates a situation where many queer people do not feel safe being out and open about their identities, which leads to a third theme.

There is a lack of visibility of queer people in medical environments. Those who are there often stay hidden due to discrimination and oppression. My informants have told me about fears of coming out in medical school or in practice for any number of reasons, including not getting into a residency program, patients rejecting them (one informant came out to a patient who froze up and asked for another doctor), and even being fired (living in Texas means that’s a possibility).

These are, of course, preliminary themes that I have noticed—there are sure to be any number of other issues to crop up once actual data analysis beings. But one thing is clear: there is a problem in the culture of medicine that may be contributing to queer health disparities.

Hopefully, by conducting this research we will be able to make some policy recommendations for medical school curricula that will take queer health issues more seriously. If there is any hope of diminishing queer health disparities, health care providers will need to understand health issues that are particular to queer people. I will, of course, be sure to share the findings of this research once it is complete. For now, I hope I’ve shed some light on one of the problems of queer health disparities.

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  1. Interesting. One of the problems could be that medicine is dominated by old, old men with outdated views who work long past normal retirement age.

    This in turn could be due to the short supply of new graduates – a situation no doubt encouraged by the professional bodies in order to maintain the status and earning power of the profession.

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