Honoring Pride Month at Penn Medicine

By Eve J. Higginbotham SM, MD, ML

Imagine yourself enjoying time with friends in a small bar in New York and, without warning, joyous moments are unceremoniously interrupted by police.  The atmosphere instantly is transformed to what feels like a battlefield.  Several of your friends are taken to jail. The entire neighborhood is seemingly engaged in the conflict, and days of continued disruption follow.  The Stonewall Riots in 1969 launched a movement which resulted in continued activitism for civil rights within the LGBTQ+ community and increased social acceptance, creating pockets of a greater sense of belonging across the nation. Philadelphia and its residents have also been central to this movement with the first gay rights demonstrations in the US occurring right outside Independence Hall every July 4th from 1965 to 1969 and thus, preceding the Stonewall riots.  June is also a time to acknowledge and celebrate the Supreme Court decisions that have advanced equality for the LGBTQ+ community, such as the Obergefell decision, which legalized same sex marriage, and the Bostock ruling,  which facilitated the care of transgender patients by hospitals. Sparked by conflict, Pride Month has evolved to a time for reflection, recommitment, and celebration. 

The country and our community have come a long way since the 1960s, however as with any advancement we must remain vigilant to sustain the advances that have been gained and those that still to be won.  At Penn Medicine, every year we celebrate John E. Fryer MD, a former resident at the University of Pennsylvania, who was asked to leave early because of his homosexuality.  Dr. Fryer was ultimately recognized as being instrumental in removing homosexuality as a mental illness following his famous speech at the American Psychiatric Association in 1972, when he wore a mask to hide his identity.  His personal and professional life is a testimony to the challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community then and those that continue in pockets across the country now. Additional remarkable figures in medicine include Dr. Sara Baker (1873-1945), who notably identified the index case, Typhoid Mary, and delivered care to the underserved in New York City; Dr. Alan Hart (1890 – 1962), who pioneered the use of imaging in tuberculosis detection; and Dr. Louise Pearce (1885-1959), whose research led to the cure for African Sleeping sickness.  Modern day role models within our midst include Dr. Benoit Dubé, Chief Wellness Officer and Associate Provost for the University of Pennyslvania, Dr. Ronald Collman, Director of the Penn Center for AIDS Research, Dr. Donita Brady, Associate Dean and Dr. César A. Briceño, Advisory Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education.  The list of our LGBTQ+ leaders in medicine is long, unlike the days of the Philadelphia Annual Reminder Protests, Stonewall Riots and Dr. Fryer’s tenure. 

There is strong institutional commitment to health equity in marginalized communities and both Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) and Penn Medicine. Notably, Dr. Nadia Dowshen provides essential services at CHOP in her role as the Director of Adolescent HIV Services and Co Director of the Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic.  At Penn Medicine, we are fortunate to have exceptional leaders at the Penn medicine program for LGBTQ Health, Drs. Rebecca Hirsh and Judd Flesch, and Ms. Rosemary Thomas.  This past year they facilitated more than 300 patients access to primary and specialty care, supported mentoring connections between learners and faculty, and launched the infrastructure for increased collaboration among gender affirming care providers at Penn Medicine. You can learn more about the LGBTQ Program at https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/find-a-program-or-service/lgbtq-health, a program which has received national awards.  We also celebrate our UPHS leaders on their accomplishments – Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian, Pennsylvania Hospital, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Hospital, and Princeton Hospital compete yearly and receive high scores in the Human Rights Campaign Health Care Equality Index. (The Human Rights Campaign Foundation is the educational arm of the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.) https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2022/march/penn-medicine-recognized-as-lgbtq-health-care-equality-leader

 While we celebrate these accomplishments, as mentioned, we must continue to remain aware, given the continued currents of political headwinds that reverse gains which have been made over the last few decades.  As we go about our daily activities, either at home or work, we need to adhere to our core values set forth in our Penn Medicine strategic initiative to address structural injustice, Action for Cultural Transformation (ACT): respect, cultural humility, accountability, empathy, and equity.  These are the values that keep us all focused on striving for the highest level of inclusivity in our workplace and in our lives.  By elevating these values, we bring everyone to the highest level of health and joy of life.