In many ways, this has been yet another tough year for equality and fair treatment.
We have witnessed the continued demonization of the poor, the persecution of rape victims, further examples of racism in public discourse. Inequality, it seems, runs rampant in our culture and politics.
However, even in such times as this, there are shining examples that suggest a better trajectory. Sometimes, these examples are quiet and unassuming, stumbled upon almost by accident, yet they speak volumes about the world of the possible. As you may surmise, I’m an optimist; even my work as an emergency physician in an inner city trauma center hasn’t shaken me, despite seeing horrific things on a regular basis.
As we face a new year and could all use a dose of hopefulness, I want to share an emergency room story. This story is not one of suffering, but rather an experience that fiercely stung my eyes with tears of astonishment, pride and a renewed sense of hope. It came about unexpectedly, quietly, yet left a searing mark. Follow me below, and hopefully you will join me in cherishing how far we have come.
Settling into the group work area after assessing a new patient, I struck up a conversation with Vivian, one of the new physician trainees who was starting her month in the emergency department. So far the evening shift had been humming along at a manageable pace, so I could afford a little time to chat. As one of the supervising physicians, I liked to learn a bit about the residents, especially the ones like Vivian, who were “outside rotators” – young physicians-in-training destined for other specialties but who were required to spend time in the ER as part of their education. Rotators were often unknown quantities to the hardened ER staff, and getting to know them served two purposes: making them feel more comfortable in this foreign and often stressful environment, and sizing them up to make sure they could handle the work.
Vivian was a pleasant resident in her early 20s, half my age and fresh out of medical school. It was her first shift in the ER, but she seemed to be managing well enough so far, smiling as she checked lab tests on the computer and talked to me. I learned that she was planning a career as a family medicine physician, and was new to our city. A few other residents and nurses were listening as we spoke.
“How are you liking things so far? How did your move go?” I asked vaguely, typing up my patient care note while I spoke.
“Still getting used to biking in traffic, but we like the big city feel”, she replied with a laugh.
“Oh yeah? We? Did you move here with someone?”
Without any hesitation, she replied: “yup, my wife and I moved here together – she’s a surgery resident.”
We continued to chat as if nothing unusual had just transpired. And, in fact, nothing seemingly had. So our conversation ambled along – what restaurants were worth checking out, what neighborhoods she liked.
But then her words came back to me, and I suddenly had one of those moments when ongoing conversation turns into a quiet buzzing sound and I was viewing all of us from outside my skin, above the very room in which we were sitting.
“Wife”? Did she really just say that, as if it was a simple objective statement, like her age or her favorite color? Well, of course she did.
Moments of social justice always hit me in some deep, emotional place. I felt my eyes grow hot and the back of my throat tickle in that way that it always does when I cry during movies. I have always been a movie-crier, much to my wife’s amusement and gentle teasing. Suddenly I turned away, feigning the need to check on another patient. Walking down the corridor away from the view of colleagues, my mind churned and I took a few deep breaths, willing myself not to cry in front of other ER staff.
This small moment, without fanfare, struck a deep nerve in me. I thought of my college days, when the coming out of a friend became a massively awkward business for many in our social circles, and how he lost a number of friendships during the process. I remembered the close friend of my parents, a quiet but humorous man who had a partner of many years who he still referred to as his “friend” at dinner parties, although my parents explained to me that this was a useful conceit to avoid any unpleasantness, even in our relatively liberal environment. And I thought of the several talented women with whom I work who have same-sex partners and children at home, children who deserve for their families to be held in equal esteem to mine.
I think it may be difficult for many of us who are straight to fully appreciate at a visceral level the importance of this massive societal shift, occurring so rapidly over a relatively short period of time. The first state accepted same-sex marriage in 2004 (Massachusetts), and now less than 10 years later, 18 states allow it, and several important structural discriminations have fallen at the national level as well. This means that when multitudes of gay American couples in those states stand up and declare “we’re no different than you”, the government will officially agree with them. And while there is certainly a long way to go, and much prejudice and injustice to combat on behalf of the LGBT community, this remarkable change demonstrates that we can get there. It is a testament to the bravery and energy of many people who have pursued legal action, led rallies, written petitions, and pushed hard for these changes, often in the face of great opposition and even personal danger.
The young physician who told me about her wife without the slightest flinching represents, in a sense, the culmination of this remarkable progress. To reach a point where a young woman could casually talk about her wife, in a public work setting no less, without any hesitation or fear or reaction from the listeners, is as remarkable to me as it must have been to watch the first black children march into newly desegregated schools in 1957. Almost suddenly, millions of Americans are more free than before, enriched with new rights and opportunities to pursue happiness.
As we look to 2014, we should be inspired by this incredible progress in human rights– while no doubt insufficient, I am convinced it is no small thing. May we all gather our courage and energy to pursue social justice in this coming year – LGBT justice, gender justice, economic justice. There will be plenty of difficulty and frustration. But the still small voice in the ER that night reminded me of the rewards of this struggle, and the importance of what we can accomplish.