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You know how you sometimes struggle with acronyms? It took me years to be able to remember the VSHSP, who do a great job of rehabilitating vets who have fallen foul of addiction …and when I finally got their name installed in my head they changed it to something else. So it is with me and the acronym LGBT..and because I often trip over that one I already know that I’m going to struggle to remember the name BVLGBT.

For many of my daughter’s teenage friends it almost seems to be a badge of honour to declare themselves ‘bisexual’ although I seriously doubt with some of them whether they yet understand their own sexual orientation. As a straight man with two teenage daughters who have gay friends barely a month seems to go by without me getting either some kind of a lecture on LGBT rights, or at the least a telling off for using what to me used to be a normal English word or phrase.

But in fact, even though I grew up in the progressive ‘60s and ‘70s I may still not understand this issue….I no longer even know whether describing myself as “straight” is acceptable so if I’m offending anybody please forgive me, I’m doing it in ignorance. Whilst I’ve grown used to this kind of contact and to seeing gay couples dancing together I am still occasionally surprised to hear the word ‘gay’ used as a put-down word. In fact, I like both yoga and dancing (which statistically probably makes me a straight man in a gay man’s body) and I’ve often been taught to dance by a gay man. As I also have gay friends I haven’t a problem with gay people having the same rights as anybody else…they just should in my view, it ought not to be an issue.

I felt obliged to attend because in my eyes one of the bravest people I ever saw was a transgender veterinary surgeon doing meat inspection work in one of the largest abattoirs in Europe…not the kind of place known for its sensitivity. So whilst I remain surprised occasionally by use of the word ‘gay’ it was another surprise for me at BSAVA Congress this year when by virtue of my media pass rather than as a consequence of my preferences I was invited to a meeting of the British Veterinary Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender society - BVLGBT.

They didn’t have too many details; I asked whether they knew whether LGBT vets or students were more likely to have been discriminated against in rural areas as opposed to urban areas and they said they felt that might be the case but they actually didn’t know. What they wanted to talk about was a survey they’d done which indicated amongst the students they surveyed that LGBT students were over twice as likely to have faced discrimination. I thought this society was new but apparently they launched last year at BSAVA and this meeting was about the launch of their student network.

They do a number of other things apparently; they have an objective to ensure that no LGBT students experience any discrimination, they’ve participated in a number of student events, had meetings with Stonewall, organised a talk by Ian McKellern at Liverpool University in March and are reaching out to the majority of vet schools to highlight issues for LGBT vet students.

In fact, that’s what I trained for, and what I could do before I joined the pharmaceutical industry and became exposed to a wider range of people. On an online forum recently I saw a comment from somebody who’d said that 20 years ago he’d contacted a locum agency and asked them for somebody who could calve a cow, deal with a lame horse or pin a cat’s leg; the locum agency apparently laughed at him and said that those kind of people didn’t exist.

In the decade in which I trained – the flamboyant ‘80s - we used to joke that in years 1,2 and 3 even our heterosexual fellow students had earrings, coloured hair, and stylish clothes. Then when they reached the clinical years they donned their flat-caps, barbour jackets and moleskins and became ‘proper vets’. This wasn’t just an affectation, it was partly a question of practicality in an environment awash with body fluids and also what people tended to do to fit in on a yard or in a cowshed. I can even remember lectures at the SPVS student conference at Lancaster trying to tactfully advise people on how to dress to ‘look professional’ with a cartoon picture of a vet with a tie tucked in to a checked shirt: Male of course, they didn’t have a cartoon picture of a farm animal ‘lady vet’ J and that was more representative of the intake then…predominantly male unlike now.

Gay people tend to be drawn to the caring professions – witness the number of nurses in the NHS who are gay - and if those businesses become successful and take market share that I suspect will do as much for LGBT rights as anything else. And this doesn’t matter in my view, what matters is that you organise your business to best serve the client base you have. Times have changed, most people are now destined for companion animal practice and companion animal practices now often look more like our gender-orientation-diverse NHS than the large animal practices we used to know.

If what those people are trying to do is just focus on being good vets that lower profile might for them at that time and in those circumstances be a better choice; and their right to make that choice should be respected. My reason for asking the question was that it’s all very well to advertise who and what you are in an environment that’s used to it but if those individual veterinary students or vets are just trying to focus on becoming good vets, perhaps in an environment that is not yet used to overt displays of alternative sexual orientation, then that visibility may expose them to risk or discrimination. This was “…are the people who join you going to be under any pressure to come out?” I had one other question to ask of the people who asked me to their event given that they had been talking to Stonewall.

They gave me one of their rainbow badges and I pinned it to my lapel and wore it around the exhibition for a day before finally giving it to a gay friend who I felt would be more likely to find someone who could wear it with pride. All well and good then, nothing that I could have any problem with: The answer was no, there wasn’t going to be any pressure on anybody to come out, they just wanted to ensure that nobody was exposed to discrimination in any practice.

I did still leave thinking ‘why does this organisation need to exist’?

You must feel really isolated. So if that’s how I felt as a large animal assistant in a rural area, in pre-internet days, how lonely must it feel to be gay in those circumstances? I can also remember being in large animal practice on a 1 in 2 rota, having no social life as a consequence of the OOH burden imposed on vets then in the ‘80s and feeling very lonely indeed. Upon reflection I do remember a male vet who committed suicide and remember wondering at the time he did it whether he was gay.

So if you were a gay veterinary surgeon in a walk of veterinary life that left you isolated and feeling alone I think on reflection that the fact their organisation exists for you to connect to is probably a good thing. They were all extremely nice, young good looking and friendly and they seemed genuine when they said there would be no pressure to come out. So what can I tell you about the BVLGBT people that I met at BSAVA?

Perhaps also if like me you’re a “straight” vet and you’ve experienced loneliness in veterinary practice at any time in your life because of the pressures of practice then stopping for a moment to reflect on just how more lonely your life would be if you were also gay, or perhaps even bisexual or transgender, that perhaps is also a good thing.
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