The Gertrude Stein Society (GSS) is the student-led organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allied members of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, including the Schools of Nursing, Public Health, and Medicine. The society takes its name after Gertrude Stein, the lesbian avant-garde modernist and leading figure of 20th century modernist literature and art, who attended the School of Medicine from 1897 to 1901.
To learn more about the GSS, we interviewed Michael Gold and Ray Kung, two first-year medical students, who serve as the society’s social chairs.
How has your first year of medical school been?
Kung: It’s been a whirlwind! I don’t know how to describe it other than it just went by so quickly.
Gold: It’s been great. Ray and I both took time off after undergrad and had real jobs where we were working every day. It’s a real change of pace to go back to school.
What were you doing for work?
Gold: I was working in a hospital, did some healthcare consulting, and then also was on a Fulbright Scholarship in India.
Kung: I was here at Hopkins doing cancer research.
Tell us about the Gertrude Stein Society
Gold: We are an official student group of the School of Medicine and one of the identity affinity groups within the School of Medicine. We have three main goals. The first is education, so educating the Hopkins community about issues relating to LGBTQ+ health and health equity. The second is advocacy, so advocating at both the school and hospital for just policies for LGBTQ+ patients, and on a broader scale, looking at state and federal policies that impact those communities. The last is community building—as an affinity group, we host social events and collaborate with societies at the other schools.
How did the two of you get involved with the GSS?
Kung: A lot of people in the LGBTQ+ community were connected. I thought it would be a fun way to connect with other LGBTQ+ students, so when I heard about it I was really intrigued and wanted to join.
Gold: I was probably similar. The School of Medicine is small. It’s not really hard to find your affinity group and I think they mentioned it during orientation. The school made it easy to find the student groups you might be interested in.
Tell us about some of the GSS activities.
Gold: In the past we’ve held events on trauma-informed care in collaboration with the wellness office. We have an upcoming panel with transgender patients to discuss gender identity and health and how to provide affirming healthcare to those populations. It’s being organized with the Center for Transgender and Gender Expansive Health here at Hopkins.
And Advocacy. This year, during the legislative session for the State of Maryland, the Trans Health Equity Act was up for a vote. It would put into law safeguards for trans healthcare in Maryland, which is particularly important now that states like Florida are passing legislation in the opposite direction. We held an event at our education building where students sent testimony online. 30 people submitted testimony, which we felt was particularly powerful as future health professionals. Very excitingly, it did pass!
In terms of community events, we have a barbecue coming up. We have game nights, Drag Race watch parties…
Kung: Our barbecue’s name is LGBBQ!
Gold: Oh, and this was before our time, but also reforming the curriculum within the School of Medicine. The way they taught gender and gender identity within the psychiatry block was outdated, and many students considered it transphobic, so GSS played a leading role in having the curriculum changed to be affirming of gender identity and gender issues.
How has the GSS enriched your experience at the School of Medicine?
Kung: Being part of GSS has opened my views to how much more work we have to do to be more inclusive to our patients and also to doctors and nurses. Prior to joining GSS, I didn’t have much experience with advocating for the transgender community. Being part of the testimony writing for the Trans Health Equity Act and going to the gender violence protection workshop was super informative and eye opening.
Was working on the Trans Health Equity Act your first experience with advocacy in government?
Kung: Yes. It was really cool seeing people come together and having this shared experience. Everyone who came to testify knew of a person or had someone in their lives who was transgender. It was heartwarming to see so many people come together to advocate for that community.
How has GSS enriched your experience, Michael?
Gold: Largely by providing community. Medical school can be a whirlwind, being pulled in many different directions. It’s felt very useful and grounding to have a group focused both on a social mission and on community building within the School of Medicine. I think it’s also different for me because I was living in India doing HIV research and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. Until 2018, it was illegal there to engage in any type of same sex behavior. So, seeing that type of advocacy where people were being blackmailed for seeking HIV treatment versus coming here where one of our major successes was reforming the curriculum feels like a very different scale. It’s helped me appreciate that all types of advocacy are important.
Your experience in India is really fascinating. Do you see yourself doing international work in the future?
Gold: Yeah, people ask me this a lot. I’m going to be in the U.S. for another three years of med school and then at least four years of residency, so it’s hard to answer. There are domestic issues that feel important to me both within and outside of medicine. So, I’m not in a rush to go back abroad, but I also can’t. And things change so much from when we apply to med school to when we finish training.
Have you found Hopkins to be a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ students?
Kung: I think so, at least in my experience. It’s been very easy to find mentorship and people who share the same experiences. One thing I like about Hopkins is that people are very open to talking about their experiences and the ways we can improve inclusivity in our community.
Gold: I definitely agree. There’s the institutional level of support we get where our curriculum and training focus on issues attentive to LGBTQ+ health, which has historically been awful, particularly at Hopkins. They’ve made an effort, reflected in our current training, to change that. On an individual level, faculty are so available to us and so enthusiastic to do things with us and mentor us. It’s very heartening.
How can alumni support the GSS?
Kung: It would be really cool to have networking opportunities with LGBTQ+ alumni and hear about their experiences.
Gold: I definitely agree. In academic terms, a lot of us are interested in health policy and health research aspects of LGBTQ+ health equity. So, for people doing that type of work, collaboration with students is something we’d appreciate. But, like Ray was saying, hearing from people about their successes and challenges and about how the School of Medicine did or did not prepare them for what comes next would be helpful.
Last question. How can healthcare providers be stronger allies and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community?
Kung: Be constantly looking for ways to help patients feel more comfortable in the healthcare setting. There is always room for improvement. That’s something I learned even just as a first-year medical student. There is always something we can do to be more sensitive to the needs of our patients and to make sure that their voices are heard, and that we implement changes based on what our patients need.
Gold: I absolutely agree. One thing that we learn in training is to meet the patient where they are as opposed to where we think they should go. When thinking about gender issues and trans health, it’s that we’re not pushing an agenda as a provider but instead letting the patient have their own self advocacy. It’s very important for physicians to understand the social context of where patients might be coming from. That’s not only knowing the risk factors in terms of disease and health outcomes, but also, what are the social and societal factors that might be contributing to their health? I worked with LGBTQ+ youth with housing instability, and I think the stat was that 50% or more of them are depressed. Why are they depressed? Well, it’s not just that they have major depressive disorder; they’ve been thrown out of their homes, ostracized by their families, and are a sexual or gender minority facing discrimination by society at large. So, for physicians to meet patients in that context instead of just as someone who needs medical treatment is especially important.