It took a while for me to accept myself as gay. I was raised in a Catholic family and was always the goody-two-shoes in church and at home. I had the same expectations for myself as my family had for me: do the right thing, be kind to others, work hard, have a family, and so on. But, deep down, I knew something made me different. My attraction to girls seemed to be eclipsed by the feelings I had about other guys. I felt that there was no way that I would be accepted as gay, not by my family or my community. Being gay didn’t seem to fit in with my vision of the future. I didn’t have role models, I didn’t feel that I had anyone to talk about my feelings with. To make things more complicated, I was able to have romantic relationships with girls while internally struggling and trying to ignore my attractions to guys.
In college, the same sex attraction I had persisted, but the people I surrounded myself with were more open and accepting and I began to feel more comfortable. I talked about sexuality with friends I trusted, some who were openly gay and whom I admired, but I still struggled with my identity. Despite becoming more aware of my fluid identity, I was still stuck in the closet. I couldn’t seem to convince myself that it was okay to be who I was.
When I moved to the city and began medical school, I actually attempted to live a straight, more traditional life, but it didn’t work. As the geek I was, I kept finding myself spending a lot of time reading about the science around sexuality and whether it was possible I was bisexual. If I was bi, could I choose to only pursue socially accepted heterosexual relationships? I was still trying to find a way to conform to the social norms and pressures I grew up with. You’re supposed to settle down, get married, have kids. You’re assumed straight. I hated those questions at family gatherings like, “Have you met a nice girl yet?” For so long I feigned a smile and said, “nope, not yet.” I tried to go on dates with girls. I ended up confiding in them more as friends, confessing my same sex attractions. I couldn’t find romance in these relationships. I was trying to trick myself. Too often, people aren’t honest with themselves about their identity or their desires. I didn’t want this for myself. My attraction to girls wasn’t as full as it was when it came to guys. I had to accept it. I’m gay.
I didn’t have one of those big, dramatic coming out stories. I don’t even think too many people were surprised (family members quit asking me if I was dating any nice girls by this point), but I came out to my brother first. He was 8 years older and at the time worked in an outreach program screening the public or STIs and HIV in Indianapolis nightclubs and bars. As a kid, I wasn’t very close with my brother. He left home to attend college when I was quite young. As adults, we grew closer. He was open-minded and not judgmental. He always lent me his ear as I contemplated my future in medicine. I lent him mine as he struggled with loss, depression, and maintaining sobriety. He came to the defense of gay people during sometimes heated family dinners when discussing current events. Needless to say, I felt safe and comfortable talking to him. When I came out to him, he was as supportive as I hoped he’d be. Out of instinct, he was concerned about my sexual health. He was aware that stigma and discrimination had put the gay community at risk when it came to health. He understood, though, that my identity was much more than just that. He also knew it didn’t define me but was just one of the many things that makes me, me. I was so afraid of disappointing my family, and in many ways, I was battling my own internalized homophobia, but his support helped me get through it.
Losing him tragically in a fire just a few years later devastated my family. After he died, I came across a pin on one of his jackets that I hadn’t seen before that said, “Proud Brother.” I can’t even express how much that meant to me. He’d helped me love myself just by being proud of me. My brother always let me know he was there for me and that he was proud of the man I was becoming. What meant the most was that he was proud enough to bring visibility to my identity in a positive way. He wasn’t shy to stand up for LGBTQ people. Seeing that pin changed something in me. Why should I be shy to stand up for myself and my own community? Why shouldn’t I be the role model I lacked when I was a kid?
While at times I felt like I had to pretend to be straight to make it through med school, I gradually came out over the four years to my peers and even to my superiors. I dated guys and found one who I fell in love with. I graduated and found a home in a training program that accepted me and the man I loved. We were treated just like anyone else and recognized the same by my colleagues and our faculty. Despite my insecurities, the reactions to my coming out have been mostly positive. I remain grateful for that. I think it might have been harder for me to accept me than for anyone else to do so. As I’ve grown more confident in my identity, the way I see myself has evolved. I now even see that my identifying as gay is an advantage to what I do as a doctor. I am open-minded and sensitive to the identities and needs of my patients. I continually appreciate that I cannot make assumptions when I’m taking care of a patient. I spend more time getting to know the people I take care of.
As part of my work, I teach and work on curriculum in a medical school. I also work at a community health center and in a transgender health program that caters to some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in the community. I am truly passionate about what I do. So many LBGTQ+ individuals don’t seek out healthcare out of fear of being discriminated against. Through my work, I provide primary care but also medical affirmation—a need that our country’s health systems have traditionally not met. I also get to carry my passion into medical education, working on efforts to train a new generation of more culturally sensitive and knowledgeable physicians.
One of the privileges I enjoy most as a family doctor is the ability I have to get to know my patients and their contexts over a long relationship. My transgender patients teach me so much about the harmful effects of stigma and discrimination. They also teach me about what it means to be true to yourself and finding the courage to live authentically. Witnessing the positive effects of transition in their life gives me more motivation to do everything I can in my role to change our culture and the way we think about gender identity.
Even with this new clinic, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Indiana is still lacking in healthcare geared towards LGBTQ+ individuals. We continue to see discrimination, and there are lacking protections for sexual and gender minorities. Some would argue that all healthcare services are inclusive and that LGBTQ+ people do not need their own services. But get this: While a majority of primary care providers indicate they’re open to welcoming LGBTQ+ patients to their clinics, only half are knowledgeable enough to address the specific needs of those individuals. So, are we giving them the best care? I’m not so sure about that. So yeah, there are challenges and we have to continue striving for equitable health care. It seems daunting, but I love what I do. So, I’ll keep up the fight.
– An Anonymous Story as Told By Jennifer Criss
Jennifer Criss has worked at Ball State University for 13 years. She joined the Marketing and Communications staff as an office coordinator in 2016. Traces of her work appear in the Alumni magazine as well as the print marketing pieces across campus.
This story originally appeared in Facing LGBTQ+ Pride in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Muncie OUTreach in Muncie, Indiana.