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LGBT+ applicants: Grappling with whether to “come out” on your applications? I did, too.

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Almost every medical school applicant dreads the onslaught of secondary applications. It feels like hundreds of miniature essays encompassing questions such as: “Why this school?”, “Why medicine?”, and of course, “What sort of diversity would you add to our class?”. I knew exactly what made me diverse, but the idea of “coming out” to an anonymous panel of distinguished physicians scared the hell out of me. I was so worried that the lingering societal stigmas surrounding the LGBT+ community would loom over my application and ruin any chance I had of getting into medical school.

Much like those reading this, I turned to the internet to determine whether or not my sexuality was something I should divulge to admission panels. I came across countless forum posts discouraging applicants from disclosing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and their reasoning fell into two camps: 1) it is irrelevant to medicine and 2) medicine has historically been a conservative field, and it’s best not to step on any toes.

I became really discouraged when reading those posts. I wrote my secondaries without mentioning my sexual orientation, and I felt as though I had done a disservice to myself; being a lesbian is a small aspect of who I am, but it is a very important aspect of who I am. I felt like I hadn’t been true to myself, which likely reflected a lack of sincerity in my secondary responses.

In hindsight, I wish I had mentioned my sexual orientation on my secondaries. While being gay, transgender, asexual or anywhere along the sexual orientation and/or gender identity spectrum(s) may not seem relevant to medicine on the surface, the character and growth experienced by an LGBT+ person coming to terms with who they are in a largely heterosexual, cisgender world is absolutely relevant. For example, as I grew up in rural Idaho, the heteronormative culture was pervasive. I lacked LGBT+ role models and was lucky to have just one LGBT+ friend. I was challenged every day by a world I felt I didn’t fit into, and yet I persisted. I overcame my internalized prejudice, and over time, I became confident in who I am. My journey of coming to terms with my sexuality in a world that made me feel as though I didn’t belong enables me to relate with patients of all types and empathize in ways that others may be unable to.

To address the naysayers’ second point: it is true that, historically, medicine has not been kind to minority groups. However, the medical community is becoming more aware of LGBT+ health disparities and the AAMC has recently released specific recommendations for medical schools to finally tackle these disparities. Addressing them starts by recruiting and training LGBT+ and LGBT+ allies, as well as providing resources that support LGBT+ medical students while also prioritizing sexual and gender minority health education throughout medical training.

Unfortunately, as LGBT+, we know that “coming out” isn’t quite a magical, singular caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation; it doesn’t happen just once. We feel obligated to gauge every situation and decide whether it is safe to present who we are. For me, it happens every time I hold my partner’s hand in public, every time a patient points to the ring on my left hand and presumably asks about my husband, and every time I reference my wife to an attending. Ultimately, whether you decide to “come out” on your medical school application is entirely up to you. Whichever you choose, just know that 1) the personal growth you have experienced as a member of the LGBT+ community is absolutely relevant to the practice of medicine and 2) admissions committees should not think poorly of you for sharing your sexual or gender minority status, and if they do, they may not represent a medical school that provides the supportive environment and inclusive education necessary for you to become the physician you intend to be.

About the author: Keeley is a second-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine interested in the intersection of surgery and transgender healthcare. She grew up outside of Pocatello, Idaho, and enjoys spending time outdoors with her wife and dog. She encourages any LGBT+ applicant to reach out to her at any time if they have concerns about the admissions process.

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