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Why Lesbian Identity Matters

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Co-authored by Peggy L. Chinn, R.N., Ph.D., FAAN, Professor Emerita at the University of Connecticut

Today's social movement toward equal civil rights for all LGBTQ people has unleashed a host of reactions from well-meaning folks who have yet to understand why sexual and gender identity matter. Recent reactions posted to social media sites in response to my Huffington Post blog post "Why Are Lesbian Nurses Still Invisible?" reveal this lack of understanding. Take, for example, this comment:

I don't care what sexual orientation you are, as long as you pull your weight, don't discriminate me because I am not gay. Sex does not belong in the workplace anyway so who cares.

Or this one:

Your personal life is your personal life. There is no need to share with patients at all about what is going on in your life. I don't think that sexual orientation makes a difference in the workplace unless the person itself makes it an issue.

There is a misunderstanding that one way to show one's acceptance of LGBTQ folks is to claim that sexual identity really does not matter. Historically in nursing there has been a strong tendency to deny lesbian existence. Today queer identity is equally denied, but in the context of a group of women, the label of "lesbian" remains at the forefront. We believe that lesbian and queer identity do matter, and here are a few reasons why.

There is a double standard: The social norm is to "announce" one's sexual identity if you are heterosexual but to hide it if you are lesbian (or queer). Heterosexuality is announced in a host of public ways: wedding rings; free references to one's spouse; and displays of photographs in public places that announce one's personal, affectional and intimate relationships. If these heterosexual relationships did not matter, then these public "signals" would not be commonly accepted as the norm. But it is time to recognize that heterosexuality is not the only identity that matters. It is time to recognize that lesbian and queer identities are equally important for the same reasons: They entail relationships that matter, that sustain us from day to day.

Keeping lesbian identity in the closet damages all of us. As long as lesbian and queer nurses are not openly identified, their vulnerability to being secretly derided behind their backs hurts and intimidates all nurses and diminishes the effectiveness of all nurses. In particular, nurses who assume leadership positions and take risks are vulnerable to being diminished by smears about their sexuality, even if they are not in fact lesbians or queer. If we all rally together to openly identify lesbian and queer identity as a reality, even as a source of strength for nursing, then the vulnerability of being diminished in this way is reduced.

Staying in the closet drains vital energies that could be used in constructive ways. Support systems that come from personal intimacies and places where one is loved, and where it is safe to be fully who you are, are essential for all human beings. When someone is taking risks in the public sphere, these intimate sources of support become even more important. When women who are lesbian or queer have to spend energies hiding the reality of their significant relationships, their ability to move freely and take risks in their public lives is significantly diminished.

And finally, it matters to our lesbian/queer patients and their families. Our patients who are lesbian or queer and their families can benefit if they know that some of their nurses are also lesbian or queer. A lesbian/queer family member indicated in response to "Why Are Lesbian Nurses Still Invisible?":

The patient is already in such a vulnerable position. Perhaps it might help to know that someone taking care of them was like them too. ... [T]hey may need to know it's safe for them to be there as they are.

Lesbian and queer identity matter in nursing. Once we all -- LGBTQ or not -- are equally acknowledged for who are, we will all contribute to a health care environment that truly upholds the highest values of wellness for all.