Confronting stereotype

When Tony Smith decided to go into nursing in 1988, he found himself in the middle of a familiar stereotype: that nursing is a gay man’s world.

“As soon as I decided I was going into nursing, automatically I was labeled,” he said.

Smith, who is a chief flight nurse with Vanderbilt’s Life Flight in Tullahoma, was 15 when he took a job in a hospital to raise money for a car, and encountered stereotypes despite the fact that he was not yet out.

In the 1980s, the general dearth of male nurses helped strengthen the stigma for the few men who pursued nursing. Smith was one of three men in his bachelor’s program. Over time, he said, this sentiment has slowly evolved.

"I don't think it's as stereotypical now,” he said.

Todd Griner, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse manager who’s worked his way through various areas of nursing and now oversees administrative issues, credits Vanderbilt for the inclusive environment that helps him to feel comfortable as an out gay man in the nursing profession.

"Gay employees are completely whole in the Vanderbilt community,” Griner said. “I feel like I am working someplace that I can endorse and support with my entire self.”

Griner said that hospitals like Vanderbilt that are intertwined within a university community can help to create an environment hospitable to several minority communities, including the GLBT community.

"Working at a university brings all sorts of benefits, and one of them is a feeling of inclusiveness and openness,” he said. “It's celebrating diversity in all aspects.”

Smith attributes some of this diversity to the widely acknowledged job security and the broad spectrum of work available within the large nursing field.

“Once you have that nursing degree, there's so many avenues you can go down,” he said.

"It's not only about science. It's also an art — the compassion, the empathy.”

Brian Widmar, a nurse practitioner at Vanderbilt, sees being gay as an aspect of his life that doesn’t necessarily overlap with his profession. He says his colleagues, many of whom know about his partner, share that low-key sentiment.

“I’ve never had a peer make my sexual identity an issue in the work environment,” he said. “There really are so many things to know about me aside from my sexuality … Honestly, I don’t think it matters one way or the other to my teammates. I’m at work every day to care for others, to be part of a team that cares for others. I think my peers like me being part of that team.”

Smith echoed Widmar’s sentiments, describing nursing as a professional environment in which you’re judged by the quality of your work, not the person you go home to.

"As long as people know that you know what you're doing and, you're doing your job, people will accept you as who you are," he said.

Ironically, it was this emphasis on professionalism that helped him to come to terms with his sexual orientation in the beginning of his career.

“It helped me build that confidence to say, ‘This who I am,’” he said. “If I can do everything that I do on a day to day basis as a nurse, I can have that confidence as who I am.”

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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