Advice and development

What it’s like to be a gay male nursing student

Nurse training can be a complex experience for gay men, involving daily negotiations with the stereotypes that plague the profession. 
Nursing students

Nurse training can be a complex experience for gay men, involving daily negotiations with the stereotypes that plague the profession

I trained as a nurse in the 1980s, when societal attitudes towards gay people were less tolerant than they are today. I was open about being gay with colleagues and friends throughout my nurse training and subsequent career and never experienced homophobia but I know that others have.

I used my PhD thesis to explore what life on the wards and in university is like for gay nursing students. Using in-depth qualitative interviews with a small number of gay male nursing students from across the UK, I focused on the students choice of nursing as a career and the presentation of their sexuality for

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Nurse training can be a complex experience for gay men, involving daily negotiations with the stereotypes that plague the profession 


The experiences of gay male nursing students are complicated by stereotypes related
to gender and nursing. Picture: iStock

I trained as a nurse in the 1980s, when societal attitudes towards gay people were less tolerant than they are today. I was open about being gay with colleagues and friends throughout my nurse training and subsequent career and never experienced homophobia – but I know that others have.

I used my PhD thesis to explore what life on the wards and in university is like for gay nursing students. Using in-depth qualitative interviews with a small number of gay male nursing students from across the UK, I focused on the student’s choice of nursing as a career and the presentation of their sexuality – for example if they came out – in their clinical placements and at university. What I found was far more complex than I had anticipated, as their experiences as gay men were also connected to stereotypical perceptions of men in nursing.

Nursing stereotypes

Nursing continues to be a female-dominated profession and caring continues to be associated with femininity. The notion that women are better carers than men due to their genetic makeup feeds the perception of nursing as a feminised role. This presents problems for male and female nurses, as well as the profession.

I found that the way students managed their sexuality was a negotiation of their private lives and their professional performance. For example, some students were openly gay in university, but none of these students were ‘out’ in their clinical placements. Some of the students used strategies to gauge how acceptable disclosure would be; for one student this included leaving a copy of a tabloid newspaper in the staffroom to see what the response of his colleagues would be to a story with a gay theme.

Being ‘out’ with patients

Negotiating therapeutic relationships with patients appeared to be deeply problematic for the students whether they disclosed their sexuality or not. The most difficult questions patients asked were related to relationships (‘Are you married/engaged?’) and social activities (‘Are you going out tonight?’). Students told me how they would mumble a response or ensure they did not mention the gender of their partner.

Students who disclosed their sexuality to clients or patients were the exception. One student disclosed his sexuality so that he could help a patient to understand their own situation. Some of the gay male nursing students negotiated a unique way of being a nurse, incorporating stereotypically feminine attributes, such as being concerned with personal care.

Open discussions

The experience of these students is fraught due to the complexities and boundaries of professional nursing roles. There needs to be more open discussion about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues so that an inclusive environment of care where people can be themselves is developed.

Universities play a key part in the education of healthcare students and need to ensure that their curricula is inclusive of LGBT issues and of LGBT students.


References

Clarke D (2014) The Experience of Gay Male Undergraduate Nursing Students: A Qualitative Exploration of Professional Lives. PhD thesis, Cardiff University. 


About the author

Dave Clarke is senior lecturer and deputy head of school at Cardiff University 

 

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