I visited a local health clinic for a general physical exam. “Are you sexually active?” was among the many intrusive questions asked.
Sometime between taking my temperature and making me stand on a scale, the young, red-haired nurse (not a natural redhead, by the way) asked me this very personal question. I’m 24 years old and no stranger to the cold, bleak buildings we call medical centers. Typically, I breeze through these sorts of questions with an air of indifference. However, this time I was in my hometown — a very small, rural place in south Texas.
Old family friends and two of my former schoolteachers were sitting in a waiting room on the other side of the wall. A girl I went to high school with was the front desk receptionist.
I gave a succinct yes and hoped the nurse would quickly move on to the less awkward part of the screening.
Unfortunately, the next question was, “Do you use contraceptives?”
I felt the heat rush to my cheeks.
“No,” I answered.
She jotted my confessions on a small sheet of paper and left the room.
I didn’t have the opportunity to express that I’m gay, so I appeared sexually irresponsible.
Soon after, the medical doctor who would conduct my exam arrived and began reviewing the information I provided the nurse.
“I see here that you’re sexually active, but not using contraceptives?”
She looked at me quizzically, but her tone was flat.
“Well, I’m gay. I’m not worried about getting pregnant,” I assured the doctor.
She stared at her tiny computer and halted typing.
“If I say you’re sexually active, but not using contraceptives that will raise red flags.”
“But I don’t need to use contraceptives. I’m gay,” I repeated.
“Hmm, well, I’m not going to put that in here either. That will raise red flags too. We’ll just put ‘not sexually active,’ is that okay?”
I stayed silent for a moment, in shock. I looked at her hesitant expression and into her eyes. There wasn’t a speck of contempt in them, just ignorance.
“Sure,” I said, defeated. “That’s fine.”
The shock from this encounter must have triggered a momentary lapse of judgment, causing an inability to respond properly.
I’ve been tirelessly ruminating about this experience. My response is haunting me. What I should have said, is:
“RED FLAG?” What the hell? It’s not the 1950s, and I do not need to hide my sexual identity. How would being presented as gay on paper raise any flags?
How dare you imply that my preference in sexual and romantic partners is not normal, or wrong.
Advice to the doctor and nurse I spoke to at my appointment:
The framework in which physicians and nurses ask questions needs to change. If I answer “yes” to being sexually active, you should proceed to ask, “with men, women, or both?”
A lovely gynecologist I saw in Portland, OR, used this method. To this day, she’s still the best, and only gay-friendly, gyno I’ve ever seen.
I wish more people in the medical field would make an effort to step outside their heteronormative bubbles.
To my queer comrades who will inevitably face a similar situation, please remember insensitive behavior like this from medical professionals is not fine.
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