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Why Are Lesbian Nurses Still Invisible?

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Coming soon to MTV is Nurse Nation, a new docu-series that chronicles the work, and play, of nine young travel nurses.

Nurse Nation is supposed to illustrate the challenges of the nursing profession. I hope that the nurses who "party hard" do not overshadow the images and realities of what nursing work is really like with those Girls Gone Wild-like images. I'm not holding my breath, because the show is billed as a replacement of the no-longer-running Jersey Shore. If that's any indication of what Nurse Nation will be like, I'm sure we will know more about their "off time" than about their work time.

Who are the nurses whom we will see in Nurse Nation? Will they portray the wide range of women nurses? Will all the "characters" be women, and heterosexual, or will one or more of them identify as lesbian? If there is a lesbian nurse in the Nurse Nation mix, I certainly hope the portrayal does not cater to the heterosexual male fantasy of a "sponge bath with benefits" or the naughty-nurse Halloween costume, although I do know that this is MTV, not the History Channel.

Google "lesbian nurse" and all you'll find are porn sites. These are the only images you can find of lesbian nurses.

Where are all the "real" lesbian nurses? Why are the lesbian nurse leaders of past and present hidden from the profession and from the public eye?

I recently returned from the annual meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, where I presented, with my colleagues, a paper called "Unraveling the Historical Mysteries: Homophobia and Women's Support Networks Among 'Single' Women Leaders in Nursing." My time at the conference, and my conversations with my DePaul University nursing students about Nurse Nation, led me to resurrect this piece that I started long ago.

I know something about being a nurse and a lesbian. I don't want it to be "on the DL" that some of our most significant and historical nurse leaders were in fact lesbians: Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and maybe even Florence Nightingale, to name just a few.

Women nurse leaders who are lesbian are mostly invisible. Why, in this day and age, in the era after "don't ask, don't tell," when public opinion is over 50 percent in favor of gay marriage, when gay marriage is legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, when "out" LGBT persons hold federal and state public offices, and when LGBT people are in the public eye more than ever before, are we still silent about women leaders in nursing who are lesbians?

Three reasons:

  1. Heterosexism in nursing: Women make up 91 percent of the profession, but there is little if any acknowledgement in the nursing literature, or anywhere else, that lesbians are even part of the nursing profession. People still think that all women nurses are heterosexual.
  2. Gender discrimination: We live in a feminized culture, and nursing is a culture for women. In the nursing profession, men are assumed to be gay, and women are assumed to be straight.
  3. Conservatism/tradition: The nursing discipline is conservative and traditional. The discipline of medicine is way ahead of nursing on this front. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has been around since 1981. There is no such organization in nursing.

Lesbian nursing leaders are hidden in the shadows, and their sexuality is not discussed. There are few positive images. The only public images are pornographic and heterosexist in their creation and consumption.

It's good for the profession for lesbian nurse leaders to come out. There are good role models, and these role models reveal a more accurate contemporary portrayal of the nursing profession. Not only are there gay men and heterosexual women who are leaders, but there are also lesbians like nursing's historical founding mothers.