Season 01: Episode 03: Vahni-Vishala Bernard (Part 2 of 2) Transcript
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Queer Diagnosis Podcast
Season 01: Episode 03: Vahni-Vishala Bernard (Part 2 of 2) Transcript
This is a continuation of the conversation we began in Part 1 of 2.
[Theme music plays]
Zarya: Can you speak to why you said it's suicide prevention? I'm thinking about it myself. I hadn't thought about it from that lens before, and I'm just trying to think about what you could've meant. Would you mind elaborating?
Vahni: Sure, so when I say that it's suicide prevention, I don't have the exact numbers at the top of my head, but I know that the suicide rate in the LGBTQ+ community is significantly higher than if you are cishet. And also, that has a lot to do with mental health and feeling accepted. When you're closeted, if you can't express yourself or if you have to hide who you are, that is a very serious stressor on the mind and the body. You are worried that if someone finds out, your life could be in danger. Unfortunately, this is a sensitive topic and I hope that I'm not sounding too callous about it. But obviously we can't ask someone who's a victim of suicide, “Hey, why did you do that?” However, I feel like you don't have to be a genius to understand that when your life and mental health is under constant threat due to your identity, that poses a danger to your life. I feel like I'm using circular logic now. I feel like I'm not explaining myself well enough. But basically, I know that for a fact, with my own experiences and talking to other individuals in the communities that I have met online, that these safe spaces and being able to be acknowledged and be who they are plays a significant role in them wanting to live another day. And I quote that from people saying “Being able to be who I am helps me live another day.”
Srihita: I'm just listening to the both of you talk. I think both of you speak so eloquently to why this is important. And then why the work that both of you are doing is so important. And I know that you touched upon being an active member of the community, and you seem so aware of how that's going to inform the way you interact with patients. Do you feel like the curriculum is going to adequately prepare all providers to be that open?
Vahni: Unfortunately, I have heard many things about Stony Brook's current endo repro curriculum that are very lackluster, especially with their approach to gender: you're considered male or female. So trans or non-binary does not—and I say this as someone who has not taken this course yet. So I'm going based on what I've heard from upperclassmen. But that, again, gender, there's male or female, sex is penis and vagina only. And when it comes to trans health, it basically doesn't exist. The language being used is not inclusive. Sexuality is, again, assume that you're straight.
Right now, the Medical Student Pride Alliance (MSPA) is working to improve upon this curriculum. As for any updates on how that's going, I do not have any for you at the moment, but just know that we are working on it to make sure that it is better for everyone involved. Because there are people who—how do I say this? But earlier today, we were talking about, “Oh, like, what is bisexuality? What is pansexuality?” Imagine growing up in an area where this is not even talked about. Some people don't even know what this stuff means. So, it's important to have [the curriculum] updated to make sure that as providers in medicine, we are capable of having not only the scientific literacy to be able to work with these individuals, but also know how to be respectful. Which is, again, something that I feel like medicine leaves much to be desired in.
Zarya: If you're comfortable sharing, have you had any experiences, aside from this curriculum, that have discouraged you about the progress of healthcare towards creating an affirmative space, like the one that you described online?
Vahni: So recently, there was an issue among the students in the medical school. I think this was maybe one or two months ago, but there was an anonymous student who, inspired by the election results, went to our student lounge safe space, and posted a letter which basically said that life is not a safe space, and that it doesn't matter if we were bullied for being gay, black, Jewish, disabled or whatever, and that victimhood is a potent drug. And that if we continue to think like this, we're not going to be able to understand why 47% of people voted for Donald Trump. To summarize the essence of the letter because I do not want to exaggerate anything, it was: “y'all are a bunch of triggered snowflakes, get over yourself, stop playing the victim card.” And that made me very concerned because I was wondering, wow, this is a future medical person [who] is going to be treating members in my community and other communities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. And it really concerns me because I know that he's probably—[pauses]. He or she. I'm assuming that this person is male. I should not do that. I'm assuming this person is not the only one to think like this.
I was proven correct when there was an administrative response to this letter. And it basically said, “Guys, we have to consider all sides here. Have empathy, if you think that someone is going through something that you don't understand, try to understand that.” But the response itself was very much like, “Oh, there are good people on both sides.” And I think that it's not hard to see the issue with being so neutral about something that I personally, and many others, consider a direct harassment/attack on marginalized people. And the letter reeked of white supremacy. It was awful.
I was the one who—I hit “Reply All” because I wanted every single person who got that email from the administration to know what I was thinking because a lot of us feel alone. We wonder, “Are we alone in thinking this way or feeling this way?” But I'm not afraid to embarrass myself and tell hundreds and hundreds of people what I'm thinking, so I wrote, “Excuse me, administration. What do you do when a student is found promoting hate speech?” Because we just so simply glossed over it. The letter that the administration put out did not even acknowledge that the letter being posted by the student lounge was bad. It was just like “Empathy, we need to understand each other.” And that's not how life works.
My reply all sparked a series of messages, being sent from MS4s, MS2s, people in my year, saying, “Oh, why is this letter such a big deal? Like I don't see it being reeking of white supremacy.” And other people saying, “This is obvious hate speech, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there.” And it was basically a back and forth between students. And honestly, my heart was breaking every time I saw a new response to that email thread because it was a huge slap in the face to me. I thought wow, this is the reality. We have future medical professionals who are seeing something that is so filled with prejudice and hate and anger, and they're still struggling to see what's wrong, or they're trying to empathize with the letter writer.
I'm sorry, but I'm not going to empathize with white supremacists or homophobic people. It's not only hard for me, it's kind of impossible. So there's that. And that definitely made me feel very disillusioned with what I will be going into. And it's honestly made me feel like I need to gather my armor, my LGBTQ+ armor, because when I do go into clinicals and rotations, I am going to be working with people who don't agree with the fact that we need to be more respectful and inclusive of LGBTQ+ health. They just don't think it matters. And you don't have to be hateful of the people in those communities to be dangerous to those people. For example, ignoring preferred pronouns or treating a male patient really strangely, if they say something like, “I'm married to a man, but I'm concerned that he's had multiple sexual partners without my knowledge.”
Basically, I am prepared that it's going to be an uphill battle for people in the community. And I just have to accept that. And it's unfortunate that it happened so early in my medical school career. Guys, I'm only halfway done with my MS1 year, and I'm already seeing all this. I already had to speak directly to the deans and say, “Your letter did more harm than good. Even though your intentions were good. It hurt us.” To which he looked at me through the Zoom screen and had nothing to say. And that kind of hurt. That kind of hurt a lot. Okay, it hurt a lot.
But yeah, it's like, “I'm here, I'm telling you”—and again, I'm speaking on behalf of my community, because sometimes people don't have the words or they don't feel comfortable speaking to authority. And as you can probably tell, I don't think I'm the most articulate speaker just because I have so many words and thoughts buzzing around in my head, but I did my darn best to make sure that I got a point across, and I put all this emotional labor in. I'm there on the verge of tears telling him how this impacted me and my friends and my other classmates, and he has nothing to say. So yeah, that was a lot.
Zarya: I just want to say I respect the fact that you [responded the way you did]. This is exactly what I was talking about: when I walk through the hospital, I don't know who is an ally [and] who isn't. How are people gonna respond? And when I tell other people who are not part of the community, they're like, “Well, you don't have to worry about that. That's not something that's relevant to your career at all.” And I think just acting like it doesn't exist is so ignorant. And so exclusive. I don't think that that's the right way to approach it. So I'm sorry that that happened—well actually, I'm not sorry. I mean, I'm five feet tall, I'm a Pakistani Muslim. I’ll throw hands with whoever sent the letter. Jk, violence is not the answer. Also, I appreciate you condemning white supremacists because that's more than what our president did. So hands down, thank you.
Vahni: My family would say, “Oh, be careful what you say, it's going to be immortalized.” And I want it to be immortalized in this podcast that I condemn white supremacy. I'm not afraid to say that.
Zarya: And I think that is so important, too, because my parents think that when you— [pauses] Hasan, I don't know if you’ve watched this on Netflix before, but Hasan Minhaj has a comedy stand up special called Homecoming. And he talked about how—my parents are immigrants—how immigrant parents generally say, “Don't worry about standing up for XYZ, because we came to the country, we're just gonna keep our heads down, and do what we came to do, and then that's gonna be your aha moment.” I think it's so important that as part of the process, you speak up as you see things, and I affirm you for doing that because that's exactly what needs to be done.
Even this morning, I was thinking about my own EMT workplace and we don't really discuss pronouns. [Dr.] Valjean [Bacot-Davis], actually, in the first episode, just got his pronoun pins. And we kind of got into that in the second episode, as well, where [Laurel Hiatt mentioned] white coats with pronouns on them, which I think is really cool. And our EMT uniforms are printed out, we have our [name] tags. So I was wondering if I could pursue pronoun tags too because that would be pretty cool.
I think that's just one extra step that we could take. That may be considered subtle, but it's so important to share that. You want to create as much of an inclusive environment as possible because people don't understand—that's how things like what you just described happen: when you don't make those small changes. And also, I'm in a little bit of disbelief that you said MS2s and MS4s were responding to the email saying “that's just what happens” because it's not what should be happening. And I fully agree with you on that. But can I ask you, do you think your admin will do anything? Or are they just going to keep a poker face and say their performative statements?
Vahni: So, one thing that Stony Brook admin has done that I do want to acknowledge—and I wouldn't have brought this up if I felt like, “Oh man, like this is gonna probably bite me in the butt”—but one thing that Stony Brook has done is that we now have diverse focus groups. And part of that mission is to make sure that, because of incidents like the letter, we can aim to make the culture and community of Stony Brook more inclusive and, I want to say, less ignorant.
One thing that was recently put out was asking for what adjustments we should make to our secondary application that can help us determine an individual's ability to not only empathize but understand the struggles of marginalized communities and stuff like that. I don't want to say that it's a doxxing process or a really strict screening process. Because we're not trying to exclude people of different political ideologies, but it's more so us trying to figure out at the most basic, fundamental human level: can you be respectful and understanding and take that extra time, go that extra mile, to make an individual feel comfortable and receive the best health care that they can, regardless of their identity? I don't want to make it seem like we're rising up and we're going against all conservatives because that's not the point. That's not the point at all.
But I really appreciate the effort that Stony Brook is making right now to at least try to change, try to learn from this opportunity. This is a very recent development, so I can keep you guys updated. But right now, that is the best I can give based on my experience with speaking directly to administration, and then having them keep me updated with what they're doing and asking for suggestions on how to improve the Renaissance School of Medicine environment. So that's what's going on there right now.
Srihita: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think it is important to call out those things. And I mean, just from talking to you for the last hour or so, it's so obvious how passionate you are about these things. One of the other most important things that you've said is how it has been a journey. So taking it back a little, when you were in college, can you talk about the LGBTQ+ work you did or how you participated in the community there, and how that might have helped you become the person you are today?
Vahni: Sure. So unfortunately, like I've mentioned, being proud of my identity is something that is still pretty new to me. It's only when I started medical school, that I was like, “You know what, I'm going to be a doctor, I need to do something that's worthwhile.” That's something that's important to me. And that's why I decided to be a part of MSPA, run for an executive board position, and work with other amazing individuals in the community where we try to make a difference.
In college, however, it's something that I still struggled with. I tried to figure out questions like What am I? What is most comfortable for me? Am I a real bisexual? Is there something wrong with me? I don't know. It seems really silly. Why does that bother [me] so much? To be honest, I don't know. It just does. And I don't need to explain that. Like, it just is what it is. And so I wasn't part of my college’s pride group, mainly because I didn't know if I would be accepted. I did not know what contributions I would be able to have [and also] I was still in the closet to most of my family. My friends knew, my mom knew, but not my sister, not my dad, not my extended family in Trinidad who are a lot more reserved and conservative than I am. So I was worried. I was really scared. So I didn't really do much. I was involved in my school sexual assault resource unit, though, where we did really try to focus on how to care for and protect, and help heal survivors of all genders and sexual orientation. So I am very proud to say that I do have experience with that. But I was not as involved with work directly with the community as I am now. I do regret it. But that's why I'm correcting it now. And I'm focusing on it from here on and the future.
Srihita: So we were looking at your LinkedIn, and we read that you were part of an organization called Thread Inc. Could you talk about what that entails?
Vahni: Sure, Thread was an organization that I actually accidentally joined. In my math class, there was a piece of paper being passed around in the calculus room, and people were saying, “Oh, just sign up for it.” So I signed up for it. And then I got this email saying, “Come to our orientation, we're going to make Baltimore a better place.” And I thought, “Oh my God, that would be great. I would love to make Baltimore a better place.” That sounded great to me. Then I went to the orientation, and I realized that I accidentally fell into one of the most amazing opportunities of my entire life. Thread is an organization that seeks to improve Baltimore by working with its youth, and making sure that they're able to achieve not only their academic goals, but their personal goals, family goals, financial goals. We go way beyond just the classroom to make sure that the students that we work with are able to live the life that they want to live and know that we're there to support them with whatever is going on.
I feel like it's pretty common knowledge that Baltimore is a city that struggles with poverty, socioeconomic issues, and racism. Thread tries to combat that by making sure that even though these individuals are being faced with [these issues], we're there to support them and protect them and make sure that they're okay and able to overcome these obstacles. Life is really unfair when you're a child. It's really upsetting to have to deal with housing insecurity, a food desert, and not really having an idea of what your life is going to be like. It's like being in limbo. That's how I tried to think of it. You're living day to day without the ability to think of a future goal because of society's impacts on you.
Being a “grandparent” specifically—because that was my major role—means that I worked with several volunteers and students to make sure that they were engaged with their student and making sure that the student was able to communicate with us and feel comfortable. I should probably speak about the structure of this because you might be wondering. Thread works like a fabric. So, you'll have the student, then you will have several family members, maybe three to five family members, all working to help that student with their goals. One of those family members is called the “head of family.” And the head of family is someone who works directly with me, as a grandparent. I would have about seven to eight heads of families. So I'd be managing seven to eight students at a time and making sure that everything is going smoothly, if they needed any kind of resource, advice, or some help—with getting a student to a job interview, or taking the student out for dinner, helping with their homework or helping the parents find housing security programs. That's what a grandparent would do. And I would work directly with Thread staff and my site manager, to make sure that I have help as well, with making sure that the families and the students are provided for. I hope I gave a pretty decent description of what Thread does.
I feel like I can't even begin to describe how amazing it is. It honestly changed my life because I learned so much from my students and the volunteers that I worked with. I think that being part of Thread is one of the most important parts of my identity of being a Johns Hopkins student. If I did not join Thread, I would have stayed in the Hopkins bubble, and would have not known about the reality of living in Baltimore. People in Baltimore, they're so friendly and nice. I'm used to being around rude New Yorkers all the time. Maybe I am a rude New Yorker, too. I don't know. It was just really nice. Someone would be walking down the street to the bus, and they would say, “Hello, Miss, how are you doing today?” and I'm going, “Oh, my goodness, this person actually wants to talk to me.” And it's not in passing. They actually want to know how I'm doing. It's not even creepy. It was amazing. It was the same thing when I was working at the hospital. I was working in the pediatric emergency department and people were just so nice. The local community was just so nice. I really enjoyed working with them and feeling like I was part of Baltimore. I was able to work with the residents and able to help the students and their families in the ways a 19 or 20 year old could. So that was very important to me. I would not have been able to feel like I was a genuine part of the city if it weren't for Thread.
Zarya: I love that. Everything that you just described is honestly [inspiring]. Well, I feel like I'm getting there. What you mentioned about just signing off on this random piece of paper that was being passed around your room—I had a similar experience where I got an email that said, “Hey, sign up for a mock interview.” So I signed up for the meeting. And I guess I didn't look at the date too carefully. So this was in September of my freshman year, and I walked into the meeting, and there's all these people who are dressed up, but I don't see any students. I only see adults. (I don't consider myself an adult yet. I know that I should; I'm 20.) Anyway, it was a bunch of people who were dressed up very nicely. It seemed like they were having a serious conversation when I walked in. So I ended up explaining, “Hey, I'm sorry. I thought there was a mock interview here today. I'll just get going.” They said, “Oh, well if you have your resume, let's just take a look at it. You came here anyway.” So they took a look at it and that's how I got my job as a medical scribe because the person I showed my documentation to was a regional director for Mount Sinai, which was amazing. What are the chances? So that's how I got my first job in the medical field, and what you were talking about with people being very friendly, I feel like I got that on my 4am commute from Stony Brook to Manhattan.
I met some really cool people on the train, which is cool, because it became a routine to see the same individuals. But you talked a lot about Baltimore, and I was wondering if you could speak to the healthcare disparities that you saw with regards to socioeconomic inequality?
Vahni: Sure. So from what I do know, based on just personal experience, working with families in Baltimore, as well as that one public health class that I did take just for funsies is that there's definitely a lot of issues with investment into the communities. For example, I mentioned food deserts. And also another thing to mention is that Baltimore is mostly a black population, so racism is extremely harmful there as well. Unemployment is rampant. Housing insecurity is an issue. And like we mentioned before, that takes a toll on your mental and physical health. The transportation is not good as well. Honestly, there's so much going on with the infrastructure of Baltimore. And also there's a lot of government corruption. I don't want to just throw around buzzwords and stuff like that. But basically, anything that you think could be going wrong with investing into the people, it's there, especially with the black populations. And of course, the gentrified communities are doing fine.
And this is why I mentioned that if I had not joined Thread, I never would have known what real Baltimore's like because Johns Hopkins is located in Charles Village—that's a very gentrified community; you would think everything is all fine and dandy. There are sidewalks there. There are sometimes no sidewalks in other neighborhoods. I would see kids during school hours just riding bikes around, probably ditching school. And I would sometimes ask my kids, “How's your family going? Where's your parents?” And they'll be like, “Oh, I don't know.” And that's concerning. But yeah, just in general, it was pretty bad. Honestly, I just feel like if there was more investment made into the community, more money being put into the city, and also making healthcare more accessible for these people, that would be really important. But I feel like that's kind of a generic answer. I wish I could give a better answer, but that's the best I can give you for now.
Srihita: Yeah, I actually visited Baltimore a few years ago. And I think as you said, the people were so great, but then it's also so apparent how much they're almost left behind. And I think you spoke to this pretty well, but it is so important to have that exposure, because ultimately, I'm not in the healthcare field, but it makes me feel better if I have a healthcare provider who's been exposed to different communities, because obviously, we're gonna have patients from everywhere.
Vahni: Yeah, I'm someone who—I consider myself to come from a privileged background. I've come from a middle class family. I've never had issues with financial security or housing security. So when it comes to the experience of people of Baltimore, I definitely cannot even begin to fathom what they could be going through. But through my experiences with Thread, that's when I started to learn that, wow, this is reality: life is hard, money is an issue, not being able to access healthy foods, not being able to have time for exercise, the stress of being, being a black individual in a country that is currently showing its whole ass with its white supremacy, that's not healthy. So, the access to factors that promote physical health is not there. And then emotional-mental health, the stress. That contributes to a lot of health issues. If you take a look at the data, black newborns are more likely to die in childbirth. Same thing with black women, more likely to die in childbirth. The data is there that people, who are in lower socioeconomic statuses, especially racially, like if you are a black person, you're less likely to experience positive health outcomes compared to higher socioeconomic people. Or even if you are in the same socioeconomic status, but you’re a white person, compared to being a black person.
Zarya: I think those conversations are so important. Just gonna repeat it one more time: I think those conversations are so important. As a pre-med student myself, I would not have had exposure to the topics that you're talking about. I once took a Gender Studies class and learned about infant mortality in black communities. I would not have known that if I didn't take this Gender Studies class. From there, I found out that the New York Times has a newsletter called “In Her Words,” which I'm absolutely obsessed with. And you can ask [Srihita] about it, because I cry over it. As somebody who wouldn't have had this exposure otherwise, what would you tell somebody who's also pre-med? How do we start these conversations?
Vahni: How to start them? Okay, definitely one thing that was a lifesaver for me: find your people. Find people who you trust. They don’t necessarily need to be within your community or within your identity or race, socioeconomic status, major, major-minor (if that's a big deal to people). Honestly, just find someone who you trust who you feel like, “You know what, I am willing to be vulnerable with this one person.” And from there, see how you feel. You'd be surprised by how accepting people are and how appreciative people are when you share things. For example, I'm meeting you guys virtually for the first time, but I am choosing to take a risk by being vulnerable and sharing my life experiences with you and everyone listening to this podcast because I think it's important to be able to take that step.
Be brave, because it's not easy. Definitely not easy. So what I'm saying is go find your person. And just have that conversation. It's uncomfortable at first, and it's scary. But with practice, it becomes second nature. It becomes part of who you are. And of course, I've obviously made enemies because of that. There will be people who don't like you simply because you're too comfortable, or you're too proud of who you are. But at the same time, for every person that dislikes you for that, they're going to be 50 people who appreciate you for the same reason that person dislikes you. Being uncomfortable with someone is not necessarily a bad thing because it's how you work through that discomfort and that tension that helps you grow as a person and helps you to learn about each other. We need to understand that conflict is a natural part of life. Feeling uncomfortable is a natural part of life. But there are benefits to taking that risk and giving people who you trust the chance to have those conversations with you.
And yeah, like I said before, it's hard. It's scary. But honestly, I think it's so amazing. You're gonna feel amazing, just taking that first step. [You’ll think,] “Wow, I did something for myself. I did something for my community today.” And even if it doesn't turn out well—like the whole reply all situation to that administrative email. That obviously was very tense. I ended up crying that night about it, because I'm like, “Oh, no, what have I done?” Looking back, I'm so happy that I sent that first email to everyone in the school because I realized I can't have been the only one who was very unhappy and dissatisfied with such a neutral response to such a dangerous act of harassment against marginalized groups.
Zarya: I can't wait to follow up with you because I definitely will be asking you more questions and asking for updates. And what you're talking about: doing things for yourself, I appreciate that you are part of this podcast, which is something that I'm doing partially for myself. I do want to thank you. And I think that is a great place to wrap up as well. So thank you once again, and we'll be reaching out soon.
Vahni: Thank you everyone for tuning in and listening to this episode of Queer Diagnosis. This is Vahni signing out. Happy to be with you.
Zarya: Thanks for sticking with us for two parts. We really enjoyed our interview with Vahni and we didn’t want to miss any part of it so we decided to break it up for your enjoyment and convenience.
One thing that we want to talk about in this podcast is the idea of safe spaces. That's a really common theme that Vahni brought up. Actually, after listening to her talk about it, I decided to seek out some safe spaces of my own. So, I don't really have social media. I don't use Facebook. I won't lie, I do use Snapchat, but that's just to snap back one person and it's not really much beyond that. Just for your reference, it is not Srihita because me and Srihita are not tied at the hip. Anyway, going back to the idea of safe spaces, I know that there's an LGBTQ+ center on Stony Brook’s campus. So I decided to look more into what they do, and the different opportunities that they have to speak with other members of the community. I personally was really scared of reaching out to them and saying, “Hi, I'm part of the community,” because of what Vahni touched upon. It was a question of what can I contribute? Am I truly a member of the community? Or am I an ally? Either way I identify, am I going to be accepted? So that was one of my points of hesitancy. But even with the podcast, where we've been promoting—we've been emailing them every single week and saying “Hi, would you mind putting this in your newsletter?” and just by that small connection, I felt more comfortable with saying “Hey, what other spaces, do you have?”
So I recently went to a meeting, and it was actually not through the center, it was through a sister organization. I was invited to this meeting and I had no expectations because I wasn't sure what the makeup was going to be or if I felt comfortable, but it was actually really nice. It was nice to just sit back and hear other people speak about their experiences because oftentimes in a group setting, when there's silence, I try to speak up for myself because I don't enjoy empty silences. I don't want anybody to feel bad that they shared something really emotional or vulnerable [if there’s silence afterward]. So I try to fill in that gap. So it was a good listening exercise for myself.
I think what I took away from it is that everyone's experiences are going to be different across the border. For instance, I'm a Pakistani Muslim. My experience in the LGBTQ+ community is going to be different from somebody who, for example, has generations of family here and their family might be more open to those types of conversations. So it was definitely interesting. While I don't know if I'm going to go back to that space, I do have plans right after this interview to go to something called an affinity group where you get to meet with people like yourself. So in my case it's called the queer Asian affinity group, and I'm really looking forward to the types of people I can meet there who might have similar experiences, although I don't want it to be an echo chamber, which Vahni referred to earlier, because I definitely do want to learn about different perspectives.
Srihita: I think you brought up a really important point. Sometimes, from either a cishet point of view or a “mainstream” point of view, it's really easy to have taken an entire community and say all of them have the same experience. And that's not true for literally any community because everyone is infinitely different from each other and everyone has very different experiences. I think even if you are meeting with an affinity group, I'm almost positive that you guys are still going to have different experiences, not necessarily disagreeable ones, but different perspectives. And I think that’s important to recognize and to not reduce any community to one narrative.
Another thing that Vahni talked about in this episode was this letter that was posted in the safe space that used some pretty harsh language. I think what made it particularly annoying and heartbreaking—and just all the bad feelings—was that it was posted in a safe space. It was encroaching upon this place that people went to congregate and talk about their experiences, in a place that they felt like they could, in a place that they felt comfortable. Unfortunately, we still exist in a society, or country, or world that can be really hostile to people that are viewed as other or different.
A lot of the times, when we have these conversations—either on the podcast or with our own friends or listening to other conversations around these topics happening—it can feel really easy for someone to say “Oh, well that's all in theory, or abstract, you're thinking about it too much, or spiraling.” I think instances like these really highlight the importance of constantly having these conversations and also having them translate into action ultimately. For me, it really underlined the importance of staying aware and talking to other people and reaching out to community.
Zarya: I definitely feel that. Even as someone on this podcast—our names are attached to this. On the Twitter that we have, my name has a rainbow flag next to it, which I'm perfectly fine with. I'm okay with that. But I think part of me also doesn't want to—this podcast is my subtle way of talking about it. For instance, [Srihita] and I were at Starbucks earlier and somebody asked for a quote. My identity as part of the queer community, and how this podcast has taught me more, is so important. But I asked somebody to basically censor and audit a part of that. I talked to a friend about this, and the way he put it is that I'm a museum curator, who is selectively choosing pieces of art to show to everyone. A curator, at the end of their exhibit doesn't say, “Look at all of the art I didn't choose to present.” They're proud of what they put forward. And if at this point, I'm not open to explaining my identity and explaining how I’m connected with the [queer community], that's okay. Even just by stating here, right now, that I am in some way connected to the queer community, that's enough for me and I think I have to remember that going forward.
Srihita: I think one of the most powerful universal things that Vahni touched upon is journey. Everyone's relationship with their identity changes over time, that's for any human being. I think what I really admired about her was that she was open with the fact that she's had differing levels of comfort with her identity and expressing her identity. Obviously we heard her in this episode, in this interview, being super passionate and being super outspoken, but it took her time to get there. I think often people feel a responsibility to represent and be an ally, but you also have to do it in a way where you are taking care of yourself—of your mental health, of your physical health. It is a balancing act. So I'm really happy that you brought that up. You don't have to be guilty or ashamed of where you are in your journey.
Zarya: I agree with that wholeheartedly and I think the other inspiring thing about Vahni's story—which I think is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that there was a letter to begin with—is their admin’s actions following that incident. They asked their students for direct input on their curriculum and said “Hey, how can we do better?” I think that—while I did use the word performative in the interview itself—even taking that small stuff and saying, “Hey, tell us what we can do better.” Whether or not they take it from there—we'll get there when we get there. But it's a start to at least have that space to talk about it. It is a bit daunting to know that there's people out there who are going to do something wrong. But I think at the end of the day, if there's people against—you know you're doing the right thing when there's people for and against what you're doing. I think, at the end, it’s that difference and that impact that is so significant.
Srihita: To end it on a positive note—if the people who listened to this podcast don't know, I'm not in the medical field. But every time I do one of these—learning history, I was always aware that the medical field does have a nasty history, it's been part of some not so great things—but every time I listen to these interviews, I feel so much better knowing that there are more people like you than people who aren't like you. In the next 10 or 20 years, by the time I'm older or by the time my children are born, I'm really positive that we're going to have healthcare providers who believe in affirmative care and who believe in making their patients feel comfortable in their own skin. So, we have that to look forward to.
Zarya: I agree and I think this is a conversation that should not only exist in the medical field. I think even though you're not in the medical field—you're going into economics and math, things that we do not like to talk about, which is totally forgivable—but having these conversations [is important]. Everyone's a patient, at some point. Whether you want to be or not, everyone from start to end is. And I think that it's something that affects everyone, and we need to have these conversations, so I appreciate you for being part of this, Srihita.
Srihita: Of course, thanks for having me. We'll see you in our next episode in two weeks.
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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.