April 01, 2016


 Making history, quietly

​Joe Kinnarney is the first openly gay AVMA president 

Posted March 16, 2016 

When the AVMA House of Delegates elected Dr. Joe Kinnarney AVMA president-elect in 2014, it was a victory for a man whose career in organized veterinary medicine had started nearly four decades earlier at Cornell University as a member of the Student AVMA. 

Gay and lesbian veterinary professionals celebrated, as one of their own would ascend to the AVMA’s highest office. And the House of Delegates proved that character and vision are what matter when choosing a future president.

Over the course of the AVMA’s 153-year history, leadership positions within the organization have been held almost exclusively by white, presumably straight men who, until relatively recently, constituted a majority of the veterinary profession. The most high-profile exceptions have been Drs. Mary Beth Leininger, Bonnie Beaver, and René Carlson, the only women to serve as AVMA president.

Dr. Joe Kinnarney, current AVMA president, at an AVMA Board of Directors meeting during his 2007-2013 Board term representing veterinarians in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)  

Dr. Kinnarney is the first openly gay AVMA president, a distinction he considers incidental compared with his agenda for increasing AVMA’s membership value. “I don’t see myself as a pioneer or a role model or as having shattered any ceilings,” the 62-year-old mixed animal practitioner from Reidsville, North Carolina, said. “Unless someone asks me, I don’t think about being gay. It’s just my life. It’s who I am.”

During the yearlong presidential campaign, Dr. Kinnarney didn’t make his sexuality an issue but instead focused on his plans to address skyrocketing veterinary education debt, depressed starting salaries, and professional wellness. Neither did Dr. Kinnarney hide his relationship with then partner and now husband Bradley Marlow-Kinnarney, his constant companion on the campaign trail.

Since assuming the presidency last July, Dr. Kinnarney has come to understand that his casualness about his sexuality is not universal. Several gay and lesbian veterinary students expressed their surprise and delight over a gay man being president of their professional association. One particular encounter was especially poignant for Dr. Kinnarney.

“This student, he was so in the closet, afraid and scared to death to come out. Then when he saw me, he said, ‘You changed my life, and you changed the way I see my profession.’ It made me realize that I’ve been very fortunate, but other people are still struggling,” he said.

Dr. Joe Kinnarney delivers his acceptance speech to the 2014 AVMA House of Delegates in Denver after his election as AVMA president-elect. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

For Dr. Beth Sabin, AVMA associate director for international and diversity issues, the encounters described by Dr. Kinnarney perfectly illustrate why inclusion is a core value of the Association. “If you don’t see yourself in a particular profession or leadership position, then it’s harder for you to access that” as a possibility, Dr. Sabin said. “The significance of being the first anything may not be obvious to that leader, but it’s important to those who identify with that person.”

I don’t see myself as a pioneer or a role model or as having shattered any ceilings. Unless someone asks me, I don’t think about being gay. It’s just my life. It’s who I am.” 
Dr. Joe Kinnarney,
2015-2016 AVMA president

Dr. Kinnarney, a 1980 Cornell graduate, went through personal struggles, though much later in life. It was the late ’90s, around the time he was AVMA vice president and married to a woman with whom he had had two sons, that he began questioning his sexuality. “I spent my whole life thinking I was no different from anyone else,” he explained, “and then I began having some challenges understanding who I was.”

He started seeing a therapist, who helped bring him to realize that he is homosexual. “I wonder if I would be where I am today if, 30 years ago, I knew I was gay and was openly gay,” Dr. Kinnarney said. “Would I have been as successful as I am today? That’s a question you just can’t answer.”

Supporting veterinary professionals who are also members of the LGBT community is the sine qua non of the Lesbian and Gay VMA, according to co-founder Dr. Ken Gorczyca. Since its inception in 1993, the LGVMA has worked to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the veterinary profession, which Dr. Gorczyca described as having a record of “conservatism and exclusion” dating back to its agrarian roots in rural America. 

Discrimination against members of the LGBT community is not a fixture of the past, however. “Until 2003, with the landmark ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, many states had anti-sodomy laws, forcing many individuals to remain in the closet, out of real fear for themselves,” Dr. Gorczyca said. “Even today,” he continued, “after same-sex marriage has been legalized, there are still an unbelievable 27 states that do not guarantee freedom from employment discrimination, meaning it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”

Employment protection laws are specifically banned in Arkansas and Tennessee, Dr. Gorczyca added. He praised the AVMA Board of Directors for supporting the federal Equality Act of 2015 (HR 3185/S 1858), which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. “This is a very significant symbol of where the profession is today,” he said.

Dr. Gorczyca was “pleasantly surprised” when he learned Dr. Kinnarney was a candidate for AVMA president-elect. “I first heard of Dr. Kinnarney back in 2007 after he was elected to the AVMA Board,” he said. “Our LGVMA board recognized that Dr. Kinnarney’s Facebook page included mention and photos of his same-sex partner. So we all watched in awe as Dr. Kinnarney quietly rose within the AVMA ranks.”

At the time, Dr. Gorczyca was uncertain whether the House of Delegates would elect a gay man president. That it was even a possibility is a credit to former AVMA presidents Douglas Aspros and Ted Cohn, who showed their support for LGBT inclusion by becoming members of the LGVMA, he said.

Bradley Marlow-Kinnarney and Dr. Joe Kinnarney at their wedding reception in August 2015.

“Their support surely helped pave the way for Dr. Kinnarney’s presidency,” he said. “It was, however, Dr. Kinnarney’s lifelong leadership and professionalism that made him a good candidate.”

Even though Dr. Kinnarney spent 14 years in the HOD as North Carolina’s delegate or alternate delegate, he wonders whether he could have been elected AVMA president 10 years ago. He believes the stigma against homosexuality is being eclipsed by increasing public acceptance for same-sex relationships, which was boosted by the 2015 Supreme Court ruling against state bans on gay marriage.

“My sexuality may have been an issue for the House of Delegates once,” Dr. Kinnarney acknowledged. “All in all, the majority of our AVMA delegates are there for the best of the profession. Coming to them as I did with a vision and how to implement it, I had every confidence they’d make their decision accordingly.”   

Related JAVMA content:

Silent minority finds its voice (Feb. 15, 2010)