February 15, 2010

 

 Silent minority finds its voice

 
SPECIAL ISSUE: DIVERSITY | Additional photos from this issue and a video interview are available here. See a timeline charting milestones in diversity.

 

 

Gay veterinarians establish place in profession

 

posted February 1, 2010

They have been called the silent minority. These teachers, classmates, and colleagues largely remained in the background for the past century, unwilling to reveal a central aspect of themselves.

They are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, and their place in society has evolved greatly over the years, from social outliers to a growing part of mainstream America.

Prior to the mid-1950s and the civil rights movement, homosexuals were often compelled to keep mum about their sexual preference. Most kept quiet for fear of discrimination.

But since that time, there has been a trend toward increased visibility and acceptance of expanded LGBT rights.

The veterinary profession, too, has heard its gay and lesbian members' voices grow louder over the years. Where, before, their presence was hardly known, there is now a Lesbian and Gay VMA that claims 200 members.

Making the scene  

It was a face-to-face meeting of a small group of these veterinarians 30 years ago that provided the catalyst for the LGVMA. 
 

Back in the '70s, Dr. Jeffery A. Collins would attend the AVMA Annual Convention every year, and he would not interact with many people.

Dr. Collins is a gay veterinarian. So is his friend, Dr. Herman L. Westmoreland. They figured others like them had to be out there; they just had no way of finding them.

"Nobody was feeling terribly oppressed at the time, but then again, people were pretty closeted. Nobody wore a T-shirt saying, 'I am gay,'" Dr. Collins said. "It's something you didn't talk about in public."

Then Dr. Collins got an idea. He placed advertisements in The Advocate, the oldest continuing LGBT publication in the United States, and soon received responses. The Association of Gay Veterinarians officially began at the Dallas convention in 1978.

 

"We hope that, with education and understanding, discrimination will continue to decrease for all minorities within the veterinary community and the world in general."

—DR. KEN GORCZYCA, CO-FOUNDER, LESBIAN AND GAY VMA

Despite the formal title, the group simply brought together in a social setting older male veterinarians who were gay.

"There was nothing sexual about it at all. It was strictly social interaction. And to this day it's still true," Dr. Collins said. "Certainly the religious folks and airline pilots did this same thing. It's a natural social thing."

In early days, the group listed nearly 35 members among its ranks, with about half showing up for events. They never imagined anything more than social gatherings and camaraderie�at national and regional meetings.

 

Time of crisis

Then came the '80s when everything changed for the LGBT community. The AIDS epidemic began, and a new generation of gays was pulled into dealing with the crisis. 
 

"It just sapped the energy from the gay community," said Dr. Ken Gorczyca, executive secretary of the LGVMA.

In addition to seeing many of their friends, colleagues, and clients die of the disease, LGBT veterinarians noticed their human health counterparts were often uneducated and, many times, misinformed about pet-associated zoonotic diseases.

"What we found in the early HIV/AIDS epidemic is that physicians were telling gay patients they didn't know what the risk for zoonotic disease was, and they should just give up their pets," Dr. Gorczyca said. "That got our attention."

LGBT veterinarians looked to official veterinary organizations for help in addressing the public health issues but became impatient. As they saw it, organized veterinary medicine was taking too long to decide how to help immunosuppressed pet owners.

"They couldn't participate in a timely manner when recommendations were really needed, so we reviewed the literature and created our own education structure," Dr. Gorczyca said. "Later the AVMA, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and other veterinary organizations got on board, but they couldn't do it in an instant."

Gay and straight practitioners compiled information about HIV and AIDS, then went into their communities and talked to physicians' groups treating HIV/AIDS patients.

Other outreach efforts centered on helping AIDS patients with their pets. For some of these patients, a dog or cat was their only companion, but they couldn't afford monetarily or physically to keep the animal any longer or were told to get rid of it.

Practitioners such as Dr. Gorczyca saw such situations and knew there had to be a better way. In response, he and other volunteers started a pet food and supplies bank called the Pets Are Wonderful Support clinic in San Francisco in the mid '80s.

Other volunteer organizations later developed to help provide necessary services to keep pets and people with a variety of disabilities, not just AIDS, together for as long as possible.  

Onward and upward

The early '90s saw less attention on HIV/AIDS and a greater refocus on political activism. 
 

For gay veterinarians, this period brought a greater influx of their female counterparts into the profession. It was during this time that the Association for Gay Veterinarians dissolved, to be replaced by the International Membership of Gay and Lesbian Animal Doctors (I'M GLAD), founded by Drs. Gorczyca and Diana Phillips. It lasted from 1991 through 1993.

This marked the first time women were a recognized part of an organized LGBT veterinary community. Earlier lesbian veterinarians, because so few made themselves known initially, were more likely to be a part of the Association for Women Veterinarians, Dr. Gorczyca said.

I'M GLAD was renamed in 1993 as the Lesbian and Gay Veterinary Medical Association. The LGVMA desired to fit into the AVMA model, complete with bylaws and meetings. Formal meetings were held, officers were elected, and dues were collected. A major newsletter was developed, and the�LGVMA evolved into an open, active, and�acknowledged�subset of the veterinary profession. Nevertheless, the association's 200 members, of whom more than 50 percent are women, do not fully reflect the true number of LGBT veterinarians out there, Dr. Gorczyca said.

As an example, societal changes toward gays and lesbians have likely affected the association's membership. Students are more comfortable with their sexual orientation, he said, and don't feel as though they need the camaraderie of the association. In addition, many schools now have their own LGVMA or other LGBT support groups. Still, the LGVMA has a scholarship program as part of its outreach efforts toward students and is a financial sponsor of the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium.

Dr. Gorczyca said the LGVMA also has, for the first time, started hosting information booths at national conferences, including the AVMA Annual Convention, which has been good for networking with and outreach to LGBT veterinarians.

Those are some of the reasons Dr. Chana Eisenstein, of Oakland, Calif., gave for joining the association. Dr. Eisenstein became a member nine years ago while studying at Ross University and has remained so ever since. She said she joined to connect with other LGBT veterinarians.

"I thought it was a good idea for the few of us scattered over the world to at least have some idea that there were others out there and that, possibly one day, we could help each other with information, referrals, and opportunities," Dr. Eisenstein said.

Apparently, the association's work has already paid off. A letter-writing campaign by straight and gay veterinary students and practitioners two years ago helped to persuade the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust to offer domestic partner benefits.

GHLIT CEO Libby Wallace said requests from some of the membership, as well as several state insurance companies' offerings for domestic partners, prompted the insurer's trustees to offer domestic partner benefits in its life and medical insurance coverage.

"We try to meet the diverse needs of all veterinarians, in particular, members of the AVMA," Wallace said.

Diversity in the profession is an issue the LGVMA has focused on in the past several years and will continue to pursue.

Dr. Collins said none of those involved in the early days expected something such as the LGVMA to come out of their efforts. He said, "But we're very proud of it now. I think these guys have taken it to a whole new level. … We have some very positive things going on."

That's not to say the LGVMA isn't hoping for more progress. Dr. Gorczyca said when he asks practice-owning groups whether they have antidiscrimination policies for clients and staff, many don't.

"That shocked me and made me realize that we still have much work ahead," he said.

Dr. Gorczyca emphasized the importance of all practices and universities having statements of purpose to ensure fair hiring and labor practices.

"We hope that, with education and understanding, discrimination will continue to decrease for all minorities within the veterinary community and the world in general," he said.