Season 01: Episode 03: Vahni-Vishala Bernard (Part 1 of 2) Transcript
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Queer Diagnosis Podcast
Season 01: Episode 03: Vahni-Vishala Bernard (Part 1 of 2) Transcript
[Theme music plays]
Zarya: You're listening to Queer Diagnosis, a podcast that aims to increase LGBTQ+ visibility in the medical field. I'm Zarya, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.
Srihita: I'm Srihita and my pronouns are also she/her/hers. Our guest today is Vahni-Vishala Bernard, a first-year medical student at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Hi Vahni, could you please introduce yourself with your preferred pronouns?
Vahni: Hello, my name is Vahni. My preferred pronouns are she/her/hers.
Zarya: Hi Vahni, what does LGBTQ+ healthcare mean to you?
Vahni: To me, it means that someone within the LGBTQ+ community can go to a provider and feel perfectly comfortable understanding that their health needs are going to be met, without fear of judgment from the provider, and also knowing they're going to be given adequate treatment, given their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Srihita: I saw that you attended Bronx Science [High School] in NYC, which is obviously a fairly liberal area. For me, going to a liberal high school, it was great that I was exposed to all types of people. But then there were also situations where friends of mine, who were part of the LGBTQ community, still faced harassment and bullying, and sometimes the response from people in positions of power felt a little performative. I was wondering if you experienced any of that, and just in general, how going there might have informed you as a person.
Vahni: When it came to my involvement in my high school, I was very focused on school. So, unfortunately, I didn't have too much interaction with too many of my peers. However, when it comes to my own personal identity, I first came out to my mom when I was 13 years old. I was very confused at the time because growing up, I didn't really know what a gay person was, or a lesbian person was, or even a bisexual person was. I didn't really fully understand what that was either. But I told my mom, “Hey, you know, there's a girl I have a crush on, like, I think I'm bi.” And she's like, “Are you sure about that?” And when she said that to me, I was like, “Oh, you know what, like, she's right. Like, am I sure about that?” It was a big crisis for me. But that's when I started to really think about “What am I? What is my identity?” My sexuality is something that I struggled with for a while through college. Even now, I wonder, “Oh, am I bisexual enough to be considered bisexual?” It seems like a completely irrational thought, but I know it's something very common in the bi community. When it came to high school, that is when I started to think more about identity and what it means to claim that label for myself. I have had many friends who were in the community and identified as bi, gay, or trans. I think seeing them accept themselves for who they are made me more comfortable with accepting who I was for what I am. I don't need to fit into a certain stereotype or a certain image to be valid in who I am. I was in one heterosexual relationship throughout the majority of my high school, so I did have comfort in being straight-passing. I was not a recipient of LGBTQ+-related harassment or bullying though I am absolutely sure that did occur for other individuals. Unfortunately, I have none that I can speak to myself. But without a doubt, I would not be surprised. I'm pretty sure it did happen to other people. When it comes to whether the support was performative or not, I don't think that the support for people in the community was performative. It felt very genuine. I felt very comfortable embracing who I was and my identity. Though, I will admit being proud to be bisexual is not something that I became comfortable with and confident enough to portray until medical school, actually, so within the last couple of years.
Zarya: That's a lot to process. First of all, I admire that you went to Bronx Science. I personally had the score for Bronx Science, but my parents said, “That's a no-go,” which reminds me of when you just said that your mom specifically said, “Are you sure?” When I said I wanted to go to Bronx Science, my mom was like, “Are you sure?” which I think is interesting because my two older brothers were allowed to. My parents used the commute as a reason not to let me go. Whereas my brothers were allowed to commute for an hour and a half for their high school. And I was not allowed to do the same, but that's just double standards. I appreciate that you went in so much detail about your own personal experiences. Personally when I was growing up, in fifth grade, I remember that Justin Bieber was a really hot topic. And people were like, “Oh, he's gay.” And that was something that—I didn't know what gay was. I just knew that I was getting mozzarella sticks in my lunch line. And people are like, “Do you think he's gay?” And I was like, “probably, I don't even know.” I definitely think that even the fact that people were just throwing this term around, and we didn't know what it was. I wonder why nobody asked, “Can we define that?” But then again, we were in fifth grade. I mean, I was not in Gifted and Talented. So I can't say that I had the mental capacity to ask those questions, either.
Vahni: I was never in Gifted and Talented.
Zarya: Well, that's good to know, too.
Srihita: I didn't get in. And I feel like that really veered me off the path I was meant to be on. It's still something that bothers me.
Zarya: I will say that my dad always reminds me of that. I'm in college now, I'm a third year college student. And my dad will always say, whenever I don't do something right, like cleaning, my dad will say, “Well, this is why in second grade, you failed your Gifted and Talented exam.” The age gap between me in second grade and me now is so big but I'm still accountable for whatever I did in second grade. So that's pretty cool. Anyway, when I was in fifth grade, people used to call me a lesbian. It was just because I was very friendly with my friends who were female. So I naturally started gravitating towards friends who were male because they were just easier to talk to. My own friends who were female became uncomfortable with me when they heard the term “lesbian” being thrown around when I didn't even know what a lesbian was. So your story really holds true for me. Also, I do this thing where, whenever I'm in a group setting with a lot of people I'm not exactly comfortable with, I tell them I'm in a relationship just to avoid any sort of conflict or unnecessary conversation. So I told people that I had a boyfriend at my workplace. I heard this—I mean, it was totally unrelated to the conversation and my sexual orientation has nothing to do with the work that we do. But towards Christmas time, I was sitting at a lunch table, and across the room I hear somebody say, “Zarya's not a lesbian.” I wasn't sure why that had even come up in conversation, I felt really uncomfortable. I wasn't even sure whether to address the fact that I heard it. And it was odd looking at the makeup of the people who were talking about it because it didn't have any place in the workplace at all. I don't even know how it came up.
Zarya: So as a member of the community, do you feel responsible for representing the bisexual [community] and educating others when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues?
Vahni: I definitely feel like from my experience with talking to other bisexuals, mainly through the internet—God bless the internet because that is how I speak to other members in the community. The internet has been a way for me to obtain information and speak to individuals who feel more protected by the distance and anonymity and more comfortable expressing themselves. By talking to other people in my community, I feel like my experience is a very commonly shared experience. So I do feel comfortable representing what it means to be a bisexual cisgendered woman. However, in the media, normally when we think of a bisexual person, we think of a bisexual, cisgendered woman. So, unfortunately, by me representing that, I'm not representing, male bisexual people, or trans non-binary people who are bisexual and may not experience attraction to men. Bisexuality is a very complicated—I don't want to say it's complicated because it's not that hard to know when you are what you are—I want to say it's more complex, there are many layers to it. It can mean different things for people. For example, sometimes there's inter community tension between the bisexual community and the pansexual community and saying like, “Oh, are bisexuals transphobic? Are pansexuals woke bis?” There's a lot going on there, there's a lot to unpack. For the most part, I feel like I can represent bisexual, cisgendered women, but to say that I can represent other types of bisexuals, I feel like is a stretch for me, given that I don't have that experience with my own life.
Zarya: I think that's a very well thought out answer. I appreciate you recognizing that you, as one person, cannot represent an entire community. Can you explain what pansexual is for our audience who's not as familiar?
Vahni: Sure. So my understanding of pansexuality—because once again, I'm still learning about other communities myself, I am not an expert on the LGBTQ+ community. I'm an expert on my own experience as a bisexual woman. But to me, my understanding of pansexuality is someone who experiences attraction, regardless of gender; gender does not play a major role. When it comes to bisexuality—I didn't really know what pansexuality was, so I'm just comfortable with using bi—it basically means attraction to one's own gender, and another gender. So it's not transphobic. I definitely have experienced attraction to people from all types of genders. Even now, my brain is trying to work around like, “What are the differences?” But, when it comes to labeling and feeling comfortable with yourself, it does matter. Someone may feel more comfortable saying, like, “Yeah, I'm pansexual,” but I've grown up saying that I'm bi. It just feels more right for me, even though there's a lot of overlap between the bi and pan community.
Srihita: You talked about how you found a community online and how that was a safe space for a lot of people in the queer community. I was wondering if you could expand on what you look for when you're assessing if something is a safe space.
Vahni: For me, I consider something to be a safe space when I am aware that either myself or another individual can be able to speak freely on an experience without fear of experiencing emotional or physical harm, risk of being screenshot, gaslit, or doxxed all over the internet. However, I try to not stay in groups that are echo chambers, mainly because I'm still learning a lot about other communities. I would not want members of a community to feel silenced within an echo chamber. So what do I mean by that? I'm just gonna start with Facebook because I think that's the one that I'm most involved in. There’s a group called, Why are the aces so pure, so wholesome, and it's an exclusionist group that says that asexual people are not inherently LGBTQ+ and that is one spicy topic that has been going on for debate for a very long time. Being a bi-romantic asexual is something I actually used to identify with in high school because I was still exploring my own identity—and Zarya, that's why I was telling you, like, don't feel the rush to put a label on anything yet because my identity has changed several times based on my understanding of myself. And that's why in the first email I sent you is like, “Currently, I feel most comfortable identifying as bisexual.” I'm looking for environments where people can freely talk about what it means to be this without gatekeeping. The 'G' does not stand for gatekeeping. That's actually the name of another group I'm in. That is one of my favorite groups, on top of My bisexuality just took a hard gay turn. These are all places where I feel like I can virtually meet people and have open discussions with them. And not only feel welcome, but others feel welcome and are able to speak about themselves so that I can learn more from them, and stimulate a very positive discussion, without any fear that someone's going to be dogpiled or ostracized for saying what they are. However, when it comes to feeling safe and protected, if somebody is saying something that is genuinely problematic, I really appreciate when there's an active admin mod team who is responsive to jumping in when there is an issue, deciding “Is this a learning opportunity?” “Is this something where they're going to have to be muted, and take a step back, and reflect on what they've said?” Or if they're a troll, and they need to be blocked or banned and stuff like that. Having people who are invested in the discussion, I think that's what creates the safe space: people who want to learn, but also are willing to step up and protect people from harassment or violence when needed.
Zarya: It is really reassuring that you can find communities like that online. I was just wondering, do you have to disclose your own identity in those scenarios? Are you allowed to, kind of, audit?
Vahni: So for a lot of these groups in order to get in—and this is what I was mentioning before about a very active admin mod team—they will ask you a bunch of security questions. You do not have to be—this is another thing I appreciate—you do not have to be LGBTQ+ to necessarily be accepted. There are some groups where they're just like, “No, like, this is a true safe space, straight allies, sorry, you're not welcome here. This is just for us.” So, if that is something that makes you comfortable, there are those options. But for me, I personally really appreciate being able to have straight allies in these groups because I feel like our allies are the people who can really help us because they are removed from the community in that they are not part of those identifying labels. There's a privilege to that. From them being able to learn from us, that normalizes the non-cis heteronormative lifestyle. This is what I wish I had known about when I was growing up. I didn't really know. My concept of gender was like, “Oh, yeah, I know, I'm a girl.” That's it. And then when it came to sexuality, it's not something that I ever really thought about until people started saying like, “Oh, like, Vahni's kind of weird. Don't you think she's a little bit too friendly with women?” And then I was wondering like, “Oh my god, am I too friendly?” I don't know, again, a confusing experience. Coming back to the topic of the Facebook group: Do you have to be a member of the community or not? It depends on the group. They will ask you questions to see what you think. Sometimes there will ask you for your opinions on non LGBTQ related things just to see where you align, because if you're like a serious right winger, odds are you're not there to have a productive discussion with the LGBTQ+ community and that is when the safespace can be threatened, because we know what you're going in there to do. We know that you're not there to be positive, you're there to cause some harm on the internet. No edgelords needed there.
Zarya: I vibe with the shade that you're throwing right now and I think you're totally justified in throwing it. So the safe space that you're talking about online is mostly from moderators, and admins. For you personally, how do you create a safe space with people who are LGBTQ+ on a daily basis outside of medical school, and outside of online forums?
Vahni: When it comes to my own personal life outside of medicine, I am being the person that I wish that I had when I was a younger person. I am a very out and proud bisexual woman, and I let everyone know that through my social media. It's like rainbow flags everywhere, queer memes everywhere. I will casually drop the fact that I am a bisexual, in conversation. I will see a pretty woman walking down the street and I'll tell my friend, “Oh my god, look how beautiful she is. I love not being straight.” I'll casually say things like that to normalize my existence to other people. And it's really important to me, especially in the field of medicine and healthcare—my classmates are future medical professionals. I need them to be comfortable with someone saying, “Yeah, I'm gay,” or “Yeah, I'm trans.” It's a normal part of life and it's something that should not be that big of a deal. It should not be a shock, it should not be taboo, it should not be something you're whispering behind someone's back, like, “Oh my god, is Vahni gay?” I'm just going to tell you right now, I'm bisexual. Just ask me. Being out and being in your face about it is one way that I try to be an ally to myself and to others in the community. When it comes to medical standpoint—even though I know that you asked about what I'm doing outside of medicine—being part of that Medical Student Pride Alliance (MSPA) exec board, and using our efforts to adjust the endocrinology reproductive section of our curriculum, really emphasizing queer voices and having zoom sessions with a panel of speakers talking about their experiences, that's something I feel is really important: just normalizing. That's the key word, normalizing that the LGBTQ+ community exists. It's here, and it's not something that should be kept in the shadows. I do understand being closeted. I do understand the dangers of coming out, but at least what I can do, as a medical student, is show like, “Hey, I'm an ally to people in the community. I will fight for that.” And I will lead by example, through what I do myself.
Zarya: In terms of talking about that, openly saying that you're bisexual and you're talking about petitioning your university, how would you apply that approach to your work when you go on rotations with patients?
Vahni: One thing that I have done in the past when we have had patients coming in for STD treatment or a screening, I would have to ask very detailed questions about their sexual behavior like, “Are you performing anal sex, receiving anal sex, performing oral sex? Are your partners, male, female, other genders?” By asking all of these questions, I hope that it's making patients feel comfortable knowing that, regardless of what they look like, I ask this to everyone. I'm not making any assumptions. This is something that is medically relevant and I'm not going to pretend it doesn't exist or that it's not important. Similarly, if someone comes in, and I see in their prescription list that they're on hormones, and I ask what it's for, sometimes they'll get a little bit nervous. They'll say, “Oh, I have, I have gender dysphoria,” and they look scared to tell me that. I'll be like, “Hey, it's okay. I'm also in the community,” and their faces will light up. Then I'll say, “What pronouns do you use? I use she/her pronouns.” They'll be like, “Oh, I use he/him pronouns.” Then I go to the doctor, and I'll say, “Hey, on the insurance card, they're assigned female at birth. However, please use he/him pronouns. This is a trans man.” I'm trying to make sure that they feel accepted and comfortable. Also using proper pronouns, and acknowledging someone's sexuality is suicide prevention. Can we please talk about that? It is so important to make sure—I know, it's a kind of a serious bomb to drop in this podcast. But when it comes to mental health, it is so important to acknowledge and validate someone's identity—especially, in a medical setting, that's really important. When it comes to rotations, I'm going to continue that behavior and making sure that if there's any kind of discomfort when it comes to the way gender identity or sexual orientation plays into medical care, I am going to try my darn best to make sure that they know that this is important. They should feel comfortable sharing and I'm not going to let anything happen to them. I'm not going to let them experience any mistreatment. And if they do, that is definitely gonna be an issue with me for sure. I'm not afraid to say that, I hope that doesn't sound threatening. I want to protect people in the community. And that's what I stand for.
Srihita: [To audience] We’re ending this conversation on a cliffhanger and we’ll finish it up in the next episode. We hope to see you there.
[Theme music plays]
This transcript has been edited for clarity. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.