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Notes on Becoming an LGBT Advocate

by Dr. Lemuel M Arnold


September 7, 2015

Notes on Becoming an LGBT Advocate

Dr. Lem Arnold

Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!

Lessons in difference:

Most of my time as a young child in Houston, Texas, while I was less than 7-years-old, my African-American nanny, Emma Mae, raised me. Not only did she care for me on weekdays but also on occasional weekends with her family. So when I went to kindergarten, I came home asking my mother why some children like Emma Mae’s were not in my class. Apparently this led to a circuitous discussion, but it was clearly a lesson to me on differences.

In high school in Port Neches, Texas, I was the proverbial nerd, straight-A student. A female member of the drill team chased me and we dated the last 2 years of high school. I didn’t realize at the time that I was gay, but I saw the issue of difference as the school photographer. Riding the band bus to football games, I was told to not sit next to someone because he was suspected of being a homosexual people would suspect me of being the same if I sat with him.

In 1970 I left for college at MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I arrived there from Port Arthur, Texas having seen snow once in my life. I joined a fraternity because someone from my hometown was in it and it gave me a better sense of belonging. That freshman year, I came out to myself as gay. I sought help from the student counseling center where the psychiatrist with whom I was speaking thought I should “try a girl” to see if I might not be heterosexual. I went to the head of the counseling center and spoke with a wonderful woman, Carola Eisenberg, MD, who agreed that that was not what I needed. She went with me to discuss with the psychiatrist. We asked that he agree to help me with my stress and anxiety but not try to change my sexual orientation. Dr. Eisenberg went on 2 years later to become the first female Dean of Student Affairs at MIT.

The next year, during rush week for my fraternity, I had another lesson in differences. During rush week, a minority of my fraternity was very excited to offer membership to a student from Africa. My fraternity had its first Jewish member 2 years earlier and had never had a Black member. At the vote, two members of the fraternity blackballed this person, which blocked him joining the fraternity. After hours of “discussion”, my minority group offered an option of voting out those two members and voting again on his membership or we would socially ostracize ourselves from the fraternity for the rest of the year and move out for the next year. The latter happened.

In the spring of 1972, I was involved in the student strike against the bombing of civilian targets in North Vietnam. It was another of those formative experiences. At MIT, I had taken a biology elective on the molecular biology of the gene taught by Salvador Luria, a Nobel Laureate and one of the founders of Medical Aid for Indochina that helped rebuild the teaching hospital in Hanoi destroyed by U.S. bombers. He was my inspiration to go into biology and eventually to medical school.

After graduating medical school and completing my pediatrics residency, I moved to Atlanta in July 1980. This did not prepare me for the pivotal experience as a gay man -  “surviving” the 1980s in Atlanta, Georgia as I watched members of my gay family waste away and die. I should not have been going to the funerals of my peers in my 30s. I can’t express here in words the magnitude of the effect of this time in my life. I can still feel the darkness of that time but also the loving community that came together. It still provoked anger, frustration and guilt. I felt significant guilt because I had avoided getting HIV, the plague. Why was I was spared? Was there a reason?

Opportunities to change and educate:

In the 1990’s, I had the opportunity to actually do something. I was offered an administrative position in my medical group that provided the opportunity to become one of the founding co-chairs of the organization’s local Diversity Council. We discussed how we could affirm our employees, physicians and patients. We pushed for the creation of employee interest groups, including an LGBT group. Later, I was asked to become a member of the corporation’s National Diversity Council, as its first openly gay member. There I was asked to help draft a proposal for domestic partnership recognition and benefits; it was approved. An opportunity then presented to be the physician champion leading the effort to produce one of the first provider guides for LGBT health care. Later on,  in the national council, the issue of transgender nondiscrimination became a topic of discussion, and gender identity and gender expression were proposed for addition to the national nondiscrimination policy.

Also in the 1990s, after meeting the person who would become my current partner, I returned to the church, looking for community. I had attended a non-Christian church for a while but eventually found myself at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where I found a church with 1200 members, at least 80 percent gay and lesbian. It was a lesson that a relationship with God as a gay man was possible. That began my now 20 year return to organized religion where I have come to see my desire to help others as carrying forth the teachings of many spiritual leaders. 

I also started lecturing on LGBT diversity in 2005 at Morehouse School of Medicine to the third year students. I then presented to the departments within my medical group. It was a great experience. Three years ago, I had the opportunity to join our national work group for the implementation of transgender health benefits. Part of my effort was to create presentations to educate my medical group and share across other organizations. I had the opportunity to speak to a group of providers from federally qualified community health centers in the Atlanta area.

However, I would like to say that the most important part of my education and empowerment came from meeting and getting to know the people: Transgender men and women, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals. And I do mean individuals, not just the groups to which they belong. Hearing a trans-woman speak to the desire to have a body that matched her inner perception of self; hearing my gay teenage patient tell me of the instances of bullying and gay bashing he experienced; hearing my bisexual friend explain his struggles of creating a relationship experience that matches his desires in a society that only sees 2-person relationships.

Through these experiences, I have learned about the power of education and the desire to become a peacemaker.  In many instances, I have found discrimination and intolerance come from individuals who do not understand the issues: having a hard time getting their head around why someone born male might see themselves female, how someone could be attracted to the same sex, how someone could cross-dress but still be heterosexual, how someone who had been a lesbian then realized she had a male gender identity and transitioned to male but was still attracted to women and considered herself heterosexual, how gender identity and sexual orientation are totally different categories. This also includes trying to help Christians that I encounter hear a different perspective on the place of LGBT individuals in God’s kingdom.

The journey continues:

So here I am, a 64 year-old gay physician and LGBT educator/advocate. I see my experience with differences, listening to those around me, and working to find ways to contribute to understanding, a journey that is still ongoing. I will continue to teach, try to be heard, and try to remember that no question is off the table. I pray that God can give me the patience and ability to love those who hate and don’t listen or hear.

Lem Arnold is a pediatrician with The Southeast Permanente Medical Group in Atlanta, Georgia. He was born in Houston, Texas, and attended college at MIT and medical school and residency at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. He lives with his partner, David “Pat” Boyle, in Atlanta and on their farm near LaFayette, Georgia. He has been a member and attended the BPFNA summer conference for several years.

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