Lesbians on our wards? Whatever next!
I want to recount an incident that occurred during my recent hospital stay that resonated with me and made me look at the LGBT & Cancer Project through different eyes.
I was extremely poorly; I was hooked up to countless drips and drains, had a tube going up my nose and down into my throat that made my voice hoarse and I generally felt completely miserable. The woman in the next bed to me was called Sue. She’d had pancreatitis and was staying while they investigated underlying problems and considered removing her gallbladder.
We had the kind of hospital bedfellows relationship where, when my emergency call button was out of reach and I could feel the vomit rising, I only had to wave and give her a pained look and she would page the nurses on my behalf – and vice versa.
She also happened to be a lesbian and her partner came to visit her daily; they clearly had a loving relationship and expressed affection openly. They were a lovely couple, even though I was too ill for much more than pleasantries.
When Sue’s condition was improving, the discharge team came to assess the way she might cope at home. In my neighbouring bed, I couldn’t help but hear the awkwardness as the young girl asked her about her home arrangements. “Um.. I live with a friend. Yes, we are close enough that they can help me shower…”.
One morning, a nurse switched on the ward TV to Loose Women, just in time for an interview with Lucy Spraggan about her recent wedding to Georgina Gordon. Here were two successful, gorgeous, young twenty-something lesbians who had just tied the knot. On my ward, where Sue and I were younger than the other inpatients by at least forty years, there was outrage and incredulity. “Married?! Whatever next!”
A male porter happened to be working on our ward as this went down. He stopped, agog in the middle of the floor and asked out loud “What’s the point of men, then?”. The nurses laughed but he continued, “If birds like that are seeing to each other, we might as well hand the towel in! We’re obsolete!”. The whole ward laughed and tried not to look at Sue.
Now, had I not been at death’s door and at risk of choking on my throat tube, I might have pulled him up and asked him to not be disrespectful to a couple who were not just “seeing to each other” but had committed to marriage… But beyond that, I just found it incredibly awkward that this passing porter felt comfortable expressing these completely homophobic views with the comfortable expectation that people would agree with him.
I wondered if Sue might say something in the couples’ defence but she was silent, and who can blame her? It had just been made apparent that lesbians were weird and threatening; that was the consensus of the ward. The man present had shot it all down and expected sympathy for the mere existence of lesbians. Who could blame Sue for not outing herself in that environment?
As progressive as we consider ourselves a society, we clearly have a long way to go. We know that equality and diversity training can be lacking among healthcare professionals – but what about caterers, cleaners, porters, other patients? How can we ensure that wards are safe spaces, free of homophobia, when society is still playing catch up? Answers on a postcard!