This Pride Month, we celebrate the progress that has been made in the fight for people to live openly and proudly as themselves.
Although ophthalmology has been a pioneer in medicine through the decades, our field has historically trailed other specialties in recognizing the unique needs of LGBTQ+ patients and ophthalmologists.
In a JAMA study looking at specialty choice among medical students graduating from 2016-19, ophthalmology ranked second to last in the percentage of matched residents who identify as LGBTQ+ (ahead of only orthopedic surgery). For reasons we do not adequately understand, ophthalmology has not been seen as an appealing special choice for LGBTQ+ students.
This perception is a concern for young ophthalmologists in particular, many of whom identify as LGBTQ+ and may struggle to find LGBTQ+ role models in ophthalmology.
As a resident from 2016-2019, I didn’t feel safe to come out of the closet professionally, fearing it might hurt my relationship with attendings and patients and possibly even hurt my chances of landing a job or fellowship.
The JAMA study, as well as a previous YO Info article, confirm that I was not alone in those fears.
Now that I’m an openly out attending at the University of Colorado, I routinely receive messages from LGBTQ+ medical students and residents who are interested in training with us but want to make sure our institution has a culture where they’ll be safe. I’m proud to say that they couldn’t be safer here, but it’s tragic and unacceptable that so many young and aspiring ophthalmologists worry that they might not be welcome in our profession.
Last year, the Academy made a commitment to make ophthalmology a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ ophthalmologists, and in particular LGBTQ+ YOs. The Academy established an LGBTQ+ interest group and created a dedicated LGBTQ+ page on AAO.org to provide a platform for LGBTQ+ ophthalmologists to voice their concerns directly to Academy leadership.
Building on previous more-informal efforts by LGBTQ+ ophthalmologists to network and offer mentorship, the Academy also has created a private online forum for LGBTQ+ ophthalmologists, residents, fellows and medical students (as well as our allies). This forum facilitates networking, mentorship and collaboration. YOs and trainees (including medical students) are encouraged to join!
At AAO 2022 in Chicago, LGBTQ+ issues will be front and center, as it was at last year’s annual meeting in New Orleans. For the first time, attendees will be able to indicate their preferred pronouns on their name badges. Also, for the first time, on the morning of Monday, Oct. 3, there will be a skills session dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues.
In the context of evidence-based medicine, it is difficult for the Academy to address concerns of the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups without data. The Academy doesn’t even know how many of us there are. To that end, the Academy emailed all members on June 8, asking members to voluntarily provide demographic information — our racial and ethnic backgrounds and, for the first time, our sexual orientation and gender identity. These data will be invaluable for implementing and evaluating diversity, equity and inclusion efforts focused on the LGBTQ+ community.
Beyond helping LGBTQ+ ophthalmologists feel more supported in our profession, the Academy is now working to address barriers that LGBTQ+ patients face. For example, since 1994 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned gay men from being corneal donors. Last fall, the Academy decided to finally take a stand and sent a letter to the FDA requesting an end to this discriminatory policy. And with a renewed focus on health care disparities for vulnerable patient populations, we are beginning to see research into ophthalmic health disparities for LGBTQ+ patients.
A lot of work still needs to be done, but this Pride Month we can celebrate that the Academy is making significant strides to ensure that LGBTQ+ members and patients are fully included in the organization’s mission of protecting sight and empowering lives. We encourage any YOs interested in these efforts to join us in our online LGBTQ+ ophthalmology community and to add their voice to this important ongoing conversation!
About the author: Michael A. Puente Jr., MD, is a pediatric ophthalmologist at the University of Colorado, where he serves as an assistant professor of ophthalmology and director of Medical Student Education in Ophthalmology. He is a co-founder of the Academy’s LGBTQ+ Interest Group and serves as president-elect of the Colorado Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons.