Learning To Speak Up...and Out
I’m frustrated. The man sitting in front of me is an incredible person. He’s been the chair of medical departments and president of one of the world’s largest global health non-profits. He’s improved the lives of millions of people. I have everything to learn from him, but I can’t seem to get much from what he’s saying.
It’s hard to pin him down. He is willing to condemn fee-for-service reimbursement and endorse an accountable care organization model but the conversation stops there. He doesn’t even give me a chance to finish asking about his thoughts on single payer; he talks right over me.
He’s most famous for both working in the pharmaceutical industry and also being a champion of increased access to medicines. When I ask him how he personally navigates the tension between the “incentive for innovation” and increasing access to medications worldwide, he describes the financial strategy of providing funding to help defray cost and risk to pharmaceutical companies, but there is no mention of his own inner, ethical dialogue.
This is my chance to take advantage of the “old boys’ club” network and I feel it being schmoozed and side-stepped away with tangentially related anecdotes.
I get the distinct feeling that this is how it feels to be a member of the press interviewing a politician and that confuses me even more because the context of our conversation is not an antagonistic one. We were invited to chat with him over a meal so that we could learn from him -- we were even asked to submit questions ahead of time!
I’m also pretty sure that he doesn’t like me.
Dammit. How depressing. I can’t even make friends when I want to.
On the walk home I wonder why I’m not enamored with him the way I expected to be. Is it because I think he doesn’t like me? I worry that it’s the petty side of my ego that doesn’t want to accept someone who is so much more impressive than I might ever be. I fret over my tendency to focus on the shortcomings of people and discounting their positive contributions and qualities. And why is it that he doesn’t like me?
Camille, my partner, snaps it all into focus for me, “Jess, he’s not a radical. He’s not your role model.” And then she scoffs, “Of course he wasn’t going to answer your questions! The risk of saying something controversial is far greater than the benefit of being honest with some random medical student.”
Sadness spreads through my being. I will never be like him. My own blinders had me focused on content. I wanted to be enriched by his insights into fixing the healthcare system and combating injustice. I was disappointed because nothing groundbreaking was revealed. I missed that what he really had to teach me was his behavior.
He’s soft spoken. He has the ability of being simultaneously humble and confident. He uses storytelling. He picks his battles. He projects ethics while at the same time being flexible. He is everything that I am not, and coupled with impressive smarts, it’s the overwhelming ingredient in his success.
Every time that I feel like the isolated angry radical, each time that I’m brushed off as unreasonable, I envy those around me that seem so much more facile at working the system. It seems like they’re actually accomplishing something while I’m just spinning my wheels.
When you live in a system that is built on hierarchy, it’s hard to remember the value of fiery opposition. Instead I often find myself focusing on my inability to coax. I’m known for making important people blush and shift in their seat, but I’m never the one to get them to say that they agree with me.
It reminds me of when I was in high school. I was afraid to tell people that I wasn’t straight. Even without stating my identity, I’d been ostracized and bullied enough to not want to claim any more differences from mainstream America.
But I found it much easier to be a straight ally. It seemed so much more convenient. No societal shame. No guilt for hiding something about yourself. And most importantly, no self-loathing. In my eyes, the straight ally got to claim open-mindedness and a clear moral conscious without having to suffer through the pain of true stigma.
There were times that I so desperately longed to be the straight ally instead of queer that I nearly convinced myself I was. But I am queer and fiery opposition is essential. I am not the palatable bridge-builder. No amount of temperance will change me and so even if it was all that I worked on, I’d probably never become more than a middler. A career as one of the socially maladjusted probably holds more promise for me.
This is not to say that improving my ability to work within a system is not important. Building a diverse set of tools to maximize one’s impact is essential and the value of being well-rounded cannot be overstated. However, beyond the practical considerations of being effective, there are the emotional ones.
It’s been stated before that “coming out” is a process, not an event. I’ve found this to be true in my own life as well. There are days when I’m so happy and proud to be queer that I’m glad I’m not straight. There are also days when the stigma from those around you is acutely painful and the discrimination palpable. Those days are hard, but even more difficult for me are the days where that pain is internalized and transformed into self-loathing and shame.
It occurs to me that being the uncomfortably loud one is similar for me. Though it is not sufficient, blunt opposition is necessary in the fight for social justice. And for me, it’s not playing a role or utilizing a tactic; it’s who I am. Sometimes I can adjust it and hold back, but it’s not something that I can turn off because it’s not something that I turned on in the first place. And maybe because it’s me, not a role that I’m playing, that the rejection hurts more.
But I must remember to find the strength to not just be who I am, but to accept myself, even if those around me don’t.
*** This is cross-posted on the blog On Race, Medicine, and Privilege