A Reflection During Pride: Being a Gay, African-American Psychiatrist
What Helped in Training, and How We Can Do Better.
Written by Dr. Chase T.M. Anderson
Members of SWRO recognize that our LGBTQ colleagues may have faced discrimination or felt minoritized at come point in their medical careers. As a first step towards compassionate understanding and promoting change within the culture of medicine, we invited Dr. Chase Anderson, a child psychiatry fellow at UCSF, to share his thoughts on the current culture in medicine, his experiences, and how we can all improve.
At a café in the Castro in San Francisco, I sip my herbal mint hot tea with vanilla soy milk and just a dash of honey. Waiting for his order is another gay man with a pink backpack who smiles as we look at each other. Outside, LGBTQ+ couples walk with each other, such an ease to them that it almost makes me forget how until I lived here, I used to spend an eternity just deciding whether it was safe to hold a partner’s hand. Here, it all seems so normal. Here, it is normal to see such displays of affection that are so essentially human.
My mind is inevitably drawn into thoughts about Pride and being a gay, African-American, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow – after all, I am an introvert who is constantly reflecting on the past, present, and future. Along with those thoughts about Pride this year come the thoughts about the past year of fellowship, as well as the past seven years before that. I don’t like to think about medical school or residency because of experiences there, but they are forever part of who I am.
My thoughts turn to this essay about alliances. Although I’ve written about the discrimination, the racism, the homophobia, the masks minoritized people must wear, the minority stress that occurs every day in America and the medical field, I have been purposefully holding back on writing about “what helped,” and “what worked.” The reason for this is we still haven’t even become fully cognizant of how deep the problems of discrimination in medical training run. We are too often a society that rushes to attempting to find solutions without even fully understanding the problem. We rush to answers to ease our own discomfort. So, I’ve held back on solutions until we come to grips more with the breadth and depth of the issues.
But, as I sit in that café crafting this essay, I feel like during this Pride in 2021, it’s time to start answering the questions: What helped during those times? What did it mean to truly have allies during those times who stood with and for me and others, not only when it was easy for them, but because they knew it was right? What does it mean to be an upstander for LGBTQ+ physicians in the hospital?
In medical school, it was our Vice Dean who saved my life and my career. I had just failed an examination because of severe anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts because of discrimination from classmates and administrators, and I emailed her for help. In her email back, she said words I didn’t believe anymore: “You are a true asset, and I will do whatever I can to help you succeed.”
Those words were followed by action where she took me to dinner and asked more about my experiences – she saw me not as a problem like so many other administrators, but a solution. She helped me get my life back on track by connecting me to the right resources. Together, we made changes in the curriculum. In meetings with other administrators, she made sure I could speak – I had until that point often been talked over as the minoritized person in the room, even though I was class president. Her belief in me inside the medical sphere helped me recapture myself and speak up and find my voice again.
Even years later, we’re still in contact, and she will forever remain a mentor and friend. Although she looks nothing like me, it was our hearts that united.
Honestly, I’m still attempting to sort out what worked in residency, because I’m still too close to the experience of what often felt like a personal train wreck of trying to fix a university while experiencing backlash. So, I need more time to think about what worked there, even with the changes that I and others made.
At my new program, where I’ve never been so happy inside of medicine, it’s been my colleagues continually having conversations about the discrimination women and minoritized people face. When an instance of discrimination happened, my program director said, “This is not your job to handle, I’ll handle it,” and it was handled beautifully. It was my program director taking me aside to say, “I know you handle things around racism and discrimination, but you don’t have to,” and following that up by asking about my experiences and calling out when I do have to speak up so that in the future I don’t. It has been being in a better environment where I’m not forced to deal with instances of discrimination just to survive, which frees me up to continually use my energy for those who aren’t in this position yet. We have an intentionality that should be expected in medicine. We have words followed by actual action.
Outside of medicine, it has been my community from MIT. It was the friends who had become family who reminded me of who I was before I lost some of the best parts of myself in medical training. These are the friends who helped me hold onto the shards of myself during those seven years of training. Once upon a time, they taught me that it was okay to stand up for myself and others by modeling those behaviors. It was their saying, “No,” when homophobic or racist slurs happened. It was them accepting me as myself and saying I was so much more than I thought I could be. It seems so simple, but it was them saying, “You are seen as different in this society, but those parts of you are beautiful, and we’re here to help you flourish because we know you’re doing your darndest to help others flourish.”
That community from MIT taught me how to dream and help others dream of the better world we deserve. And that’s what we need to do in medicine, in America – dream of that better society and work towards it.
They are the friends who kept me alive so that I could get to San Francisco and find true joy again. They are the friends who taught me that we are meant to truly support one another, and that doing so creates a positive ripple, enough to counteract the negativity so often experienced by those who are “different” in our world. They are the family who taught me we can be so much more.
So, although I can’t speak to everything that helped, this is a start.
ABOUT DR. ANDERSON:
Dr. Chase T. M. Anderson (but just call him Chase!) is currently a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at University of California at San Francisco and graduated from adult psychiatry residency at The Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. He completed his undergraduate education in Chemistry at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s in Biological Engineering at MIT as well, and is a graduate of The Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.
His writing has appeared in Newsweek, WBUR/NPR, Scientific American, STAT News, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other news and journal outlets. In his free time, he enjoys going for long walks, listening to K-pop, reading fantasy books, playing soccer, writing, and planning dinners with friends.