I’m a Black, Genderqueer Medical Student: Here’s My Hard-Won Wisdom for Students and Educational Institutions

Advice follows for how to improve higher education for marginalized communities.

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

In the last 12 years, I have earned degrees from Harvard College and Duke University and trained in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. Through this process, I have assembled much educational privilege and can now speak with the authority that is conferred in these ivory towers. Along the way, as a Black, genderqueer, first-generation, low-income trainee, the systems of oppression that permeate American society—racism, transphobia, and classism, among others—coalesced in the microcosm of academia into a unique set of challenges that I had to navigate. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned over the years in the format of advice for both Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ trainees as well as members of the education institutions that seek to serve them.

To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Who you are is an asset, not an obstacle. Throughout my undergraduate years, I viewed my background as something to overcome. I had to overcome the instances of implicit bias and overt discrimination I experienced in my classes and among my peers. I had to overcome the preconceived, racialized, limitations on my abilities that academic advisors projected onto me as they characterized my course load as too ambitious or declared me unfit for medical school. I had to overcome the lack of social capital that comes with being from a low-resourced rural community and learn all the idiosyncrasies of academia from how to write professional emails to how and when to solicit feedback. I viewed my Blackness, queerness, and transness as inconveniences of identity that made my life harder.

It was only as I went on to graduate and medical school that I saw how much strength comes from who I am. My perspective allows me to conduct insightful, high-impact, and creative research that speaks to uplifting my various intersecting communities. My work on health equity for transgender people of color (TPOC) and BIPOC trainees in medicine is my form of advocacy. My publications are love letters to my communities, telling them that I see them and that I am with them. They are also indictments of the systems that oppress them and evidence that supports policy innovations and help move our society toward a more equitable future.

To Educators and Institutions: Allyship is active and uncomfortable. In the last 20 years, institutions have professed interest in diversifying their members and supporting marginalized groups. However, despite these proclamations, most have fallen short of truly allying themselves to communities in need of support. People often assume that allyship is defined by intent; that they are allies to Black people in the #BLM era because they, too, believe that Black lives have value. This is decency, not allyship. In the wake of the tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the ongoing racial inequity of the COVID-19 pandemic, every person of color that I know in academia has been invited to a townhall on racism. These meetings risk re-traumatizing Black people if they feel coerced into sharing their experiences with racism in front of their white colleagues. This is exploitation, not allyship. These discussions must be carefully designed to prioritize Black voices but not depend on them. They must rely on shared responsibility for strategizing systemic change that centers the needs of Black and marginalized voices while diffusing the requisite labor across the entire institution.

Allyship requires a commitment to actions, not ideas. In education this is fostering safe environments for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students. It is changing the culture of your institution such that anti-racism is a shared value and that work to establish anti-racist practices is distributed across all groups rather than just an additional tax on minority students and faculty. It is providing dedicated spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students where they can build community amongst themselves away from the gaze of majority white, heterosexual, and cisgender groups that dominate other spaces. It is also building the infrastructure to educate all members of your institution on issues facing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students rather than relying on members of those communities to educate others through divulging their personal experiences.

Among well-intentioned ally hopefuls, anxiety can be a major barrier to action. Anxiety around the possibility of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, hurting or offending someone, and having uncomfortable conversations. I'm here to alleviate any uncertainty around that: You will likely make mistakes, you may receive backlash, you will undoubtedly have uncomfortable conversations, and you may have to apologize. Steel yourself to that possibility and view it as an asset. People give their most unfiltered feedback when they have been hurt, so take that as an opportunity to guide change within your organizations and your own practices. How you respond to criticism will determine your allyship status. People are more likely to forgive when a commitment to change is quickly and repeatedly demonstrated.

The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive.

To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Your labor is worth compensation and recognition. It is difficult to see your institution failing to adequately support members of your community without feeling compelled to act. As a Black person in medicine I have served on nearly every committee related to diversity recruitment and admissions. As a queer person I have sat on many taskforces dedicated to improving trans education in medical curricula. I have spent countless hours improving the institutions at which I have been educated and will likely spend countless more. However, over the past few years, I have realized that those hours do not generally advance my academic and professional goals. My peers who do not share in my marginalized identities do not have the external pressure to sequester large parts of their time for institutional change. While I was drafting emails to administrators or preparing journal clubs to educate students on trans health, my peers were studying.

There were periods in my education where there were appreciable declines in my grades and research productivity because of the time I spent on institutional reform. Without care, this phenomenon can translate to a perceived achievement gap. It is not that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ achieve less; in fact, in many ways we achieve more. However, we expend much of our effort on activities that are not traditionally valued as accomplishments for career advancement. The only way to change this norm is to start demanding compensation for your labor and respectfully declining if it is not provided. Compensation can be monetary, but it can also be opportunities for professional identity formation. For uncompensated work that I feel particularly compelled to do, I strategize how it can benefit me before starting the project. Can I write it up for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Can I find an advisor to support the task force and write a letter of reference on my behalf? Can I use the project to apply for external research funding or scholarships? These are all ways of translating the work that matters to you into the currency that the medical establishment values as productivity.

To Educators and Institutions: Compensate marginalized members of your organizations for making it better. Racism is the oldest institution in America. It is built into the foundation of the country and rests in the very top office in our nation's capital. Analogues of racism, specifically gender-based discrimination, transphobia, and classism, have similarly seeped into the fabric of our country and education system. Given their ubiquity, how can we expect to combat these issues cheaply? Today, anti-racism work is in vogue in academia, and institutions have looked to their Black and otherwise marginalized students to provide ways that the institution can improve. We, as students, regularly respond with well-researched, scholarly, actionable lists of specific interventions that are the result of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of hours of unpaid labor. Then, administrators dissect these interventions and scale them back citing budgetary concerns or hiring limitations.

It gives the impression that they view racism as an easy issue to fix, that can be slotted in under an existing line item, rather than the severe problem requiring radical reform that it actually is. The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive. Inclusion and equity improve the educational environment for all students, so in the same way one would pay a consultant for an audit that identifies weaknesses in your institution, you should pay your students who are investing countless hours in strategic planning. While financial compensation is usually preferable, institutions can endow specific equity-related student awards, fellowships, and research programs that allow the work that students are already doing to help further their careers. Next, it is important to invest. Add anti-racism and equity interventions as specific items in departmental and institutional budgets so that there is annual reserved capital dedicated to these improvements, part of which can include the aforementioned student compensation.

To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Seek and be mentors. Early in my training, I often lamented the lack of mentors who shared important identities with myself. I initially sought a Black, queer mentor in medicine who could open doors and guide me from undergrad pre-med to university professor. Unfortunately, given the composition of the U.S. academy, this was not a realistic goal. While our white, cisgender, heterosexual colleagues can identify mentors they reflect, we have to operate on a different mentorship model. In my experience, it is more effective to assemble a mentorship network: a group of allies who facilitate your professional and personal development across one or more arenas. For me, as a physician-scholar-advocate, I need professional mentors who support my specific research interests, help me develop as a policy innovator and advocate, and who can guide my overall career trajectory on the short- and long- term time scales.

Rather than expecting one mentor to fulfill all those roles, as well as be Black and queer, I instead seek a set of mentors that can share in these roles, all of whom are informed or educable on the unique needs of Black and queer trainees. When assembling your own mentorship network, remember personal mentors who can help you develop self-care strategies and achieve work-life balance. Also, there is much value in peer mentorship. Some of my best mentors are my contemporaries. Your experiences have allowed you to accumulate knowledge—share that knowledge with each other.

To Educators and Institutions: Hire better mentors. Be better mentors. Poor mentorship is a challenge throughout academia that is amplified for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees. Part of this challenge is due to priorities established in the hiring process. Institutions need to update hiring practices to explicitly evaluate faculty and staff candidates for their ability to be good mentors, particularly to students from marginalized communities. This can be achieved by including diverse groups of students on hiring committees and allowing them to interview candidates and assess how the candidate will support student needs. Also, continually evaluate current faculty and staff based on standardized feedback from students that will allow you to identify and intervene on deficits and continually improve the quality of mentorship at your institution.

The suggestions I provided are about navigating medical education, as it exists now. I hope that incorporating these practices will allow institutions to better serve the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees that help make their communities vibrant. I also hope that my fellow BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees can see themselves in this conversation and feel affirmed and equipped in navigating medicine based on the tools I provide here. However, my words are only a tempering measure. True justice in medical education and health will only happen when we overhaul our institutions and dismantle systems of oppression in our society.

[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]

Elle Lett
Elle Lett is an M.D.-Ph.D. Candidate in Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Their work focuses on intersectionality, specifically engaging transgender/gender minority and racial/ethnic minority communities. They hold a bachelor’s degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Harvard College and a master’s degree in Biostatistics from Duke University. They plan to pursue residency training in Emergency Medicine and use health services research and social epidemiology to motivate policy changes that help achieve health equity for marginalized populations in the United States. Twitter: @madblqscientist
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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.

On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

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The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

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