VBS 2023: LGBTQ “It’s Not Who I Am Underneath, But What I Do That Defines Me”

Jacob Light, MD
Wills Eye Hospital
Philadelphia, PA

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s authenticity in retina!”

At VBS 2023, we’re down to get real. That means tackling issues pertinent to an ever-changing and growing retina workforce that we hope will reflect the diverse community of patients we serve. Over the last decade, society has made incredible strides towards increasing LGBTQ+ visibility writ large, and that has helped a cohort of LGBTQ retinal specialists feel more confident and welcome to be out and proud, in both their personal and professional lives. But as Dr. Vivienne Hau, an openly trans vitreoretinal surgeon and esteemed moderator of the VBS 2023 session “LGBTQ ‘It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me’”, points out, the recent backlash against LGBTQ gains, especially within state legislative houses, has made acknowledgment and validation of LGBTQ members of the retina community all the more pressing.

What better way to highlight LGBTQ voices in retina than to let them speak for themselves? Dr. Hau led a panel of open discussion about what it has, does, and will mean to be an out LGBTQ physician in the retina community. Drs. Steve Sanislo, Scott Walter, Cassie Ludwig, and Dan Churgin each shared their deeply personal and at times tear-producing stories of overcoming years of self-doubt, feelings of isolation, but ultimately celebrations of triumph in their journeys to becoming fully “out” retina specialists. While each individual story was unique, some common threads emerged among all the panelists that offered some important take away messages – not only for people within the retina community that may themselves be on a path of self-discovery and fulfillment of their own sexual orientation or gender identity, but also for those in the profession who wish to be supportive and efficacious allies to their LGBTQ colleagues and patients alike.

Authenticity: Retina specialists and physicians in general are at their best when they are allowed to be their fully-realized and authentic selves. Panelists discussed how their interactions with patients became deeper, more empathic, and more productive when they started living their truth and stopped focusing on their internal fear of being “found out.”

Visibility: Having members of the retina community who are unabashedly visible and vocal about their LGBTQ experiences is critical to further future diversity and enrichment of the profession. LGBTQ medical trainees and early-career providers need to see people like themselves within leadership and mentorship roles. Indeed, the panelists again and again highlighted how important mentorship from LGBTQ role models in medical and/or ophthalmology training was to their growth, or conversely, how difficult it was for them not to have such individuals in their lives.

Diversity: The fact of the matter is that LGBTQ issues are a part of diversity issues in general. Dr. Hau and the panelists reflected on the many points of contact that exist between sexual orientation/gender identity and other important identities like race, religion, ethnicity, and culture which also frequently factor into not only disparate opportunities for career advancement among clinicians, but also disparate outcomes for patients as well. Acknowledging and appreciating the unique perspective LGBTQ individuals bring to the field of retina is only one branch of the important efforts to make the field of retina as diverse and representative as it can be.

But in order to really “get real,” the panel offered action items that any retina specialist can enact, regardless of their own personal background, to engage with LGBTQ colleagues and patients.

  1. Safe space signage in clinic areas, rainbow pins, other visible symbols that help LGBTQ individuals know that they are in a place and among people who promote their safety
  2. Leveraging functionality within the EMR or other clinical records systems such that clinic staff use patients’ preferred names and pronouns to validate and respect their truth
  3. Recognizing that diversity issues are indeed important topics that deserve attention within the retina community, and insisting that voices that claim that LGBTQ issues have no place within our field’s national dialogue are respectfully, but firmly challenged

Thanks to the leadership and courage of LGBTQ retinal specialists like Dr. Hau and the panel, and to the movement within professional groups like the Vit-Buckle Society to tackle these discussions head-on, I am optimistic that the prospects for future LGBTQ retina specialists like me are indeed bright.