Less than 150 meters away from Yale’s main campus is a quaint little unassuming storefront housing a homey café by day and a lively, yet subtly sublime gay bar by night known to its loyal clientele as “168 York.” It is one of the city’s most preeminent hot spots for gay men and other queer folks, allies, and those in-community to congregate that boasts a convivial atmosphere and a rather eclectic mixture of affable patrons.
This also happens to be the site where I witnessed my first ever drag show as a freshman in college, a unique rite-of-passage for anyone, let alone a once incredibly shy, ultra-conservative Asian boy born to a couple of Buddhist acolytes and self-proclaimed disciples of Confucianism who touted sartorial modesty, heterosexuality, and social and physical reticence as supreme tenets of what constituted an honorable existence.
But by the end of the show, everything I had so firmly believed in since early childhood…was utterly blown to pieces.
Upon entering, I could smell the raw, titillating aroma of sexual freedom and the redolent fragrance of bodily liberation greeting me in an intoxicating flurry: skimpy clothing in spades, a veritable pu pu platter of gay sexuality and sex positivity on display everywhere, and a seemingly wide latitude of tacitly accepted speech and physical touch.
And within the blink of an eye, I was swiftly accosted by a flamboyantly vivacious drag queen all decked out in garish makeup and tawdry garb. Still incredibly wet behind the ears as it related to sexual/gender expression, identity, and communities, I was bombarded with a range of intimate tactile stimulation, verbal communication, and social interactions that were nothing short of foreign to me. It was as if we were speaking completely different languages and wearing a pair of wildly different prescriptive lenses through which we viewed and interpreted the world around us.
“And who is this sexy cutie? What’s your name, stud?” they asked with a beaming grin while coming in to hug me and kiss me on the cheek in what I perceived to be a flirtatious conversational register.
Instantly, I froze—I was nonplussed.
Never before had I been greeted with such an overtly lascivious demeanor and tone by anyone, and I would be lying if I said I were completely comfortable at first. Yet despite being a cultural tyro to this scene who had not yet been insulated from the novelty of what seemed like an alternate “gay dimension” in which I had just unintentionally trespassed, I could remember having little moments, slithers rather, that evening of letting go of everything I had ever come to know, stripping myself of my own beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions to really engross my mind in something I have since come to learn as “radical empathy,” a term that essentially describes a mindset of hyper-proactivity in attempting to better and more profoundly understand and share in the feelings, thoughts, communities, identities, and cultures of others who may inhabit quintessentially different worlds and espouse intrinsically disparate mentalities and principles towards what’s considered “normal” such that our proclivity to judge and feel threatened or uncomfortable towards the unfamiliar shifts to a place of greater acceptance, understanding, accommodation, empathy, and compassion.
As the night of ribald festivities continued, I found myself confronting the internalized feelings of discomfort and displeasure I had initially. As I began seeing how these drag queens interacted with each other and with their welcoming and supportive audience, I started to get the sense that this was their way of signaling solidarity, communal kinship, and their global approach to fostering friendships and closeness with those around them. In no time, I realized that not only were these displays/expressions of what I originally perceived to be offensive, inappropriate conduct actually just another community’s innocuous, informal modalities of nurturing human connection with others, but also that I was deeply entrenched in and blinded by my own implicit biases, unconscious prejudices, and inconspicuous blind spots to the ways that other subcommunities/subcultures chose to manifest to ever realize that their actions were benign.
From that point on, I continued to educate, enlighten, and awaken myself by going deeper into the trenches of my engagement with various gay communities and cultures that showed me there were other ways to be. But more importantly, I have since noticed that a problem embedded within professional medical culture and educational spaces today is the absence of this wider latitude and designated cultural translators who could mediate inadvertent social infelicities and tensions that could arise as a result of discordant cultural languages being spoken, where delineations for behavioral and cultural code-switching are in many ways left to the discretion of the individual. Thus, a member of some of these gay subcommunities/subcultures who was raised and taught to be a particular way may unwittingly and unfairly have their actions that they perceive as part of their putative cultural lexicon become interpreted as subversive, “inappropriate,” or “unprofessional” by those who lack this exposure, awareness, or understanding, leading to unjust consequences.
This then leads to something that I call “gay fatigue”: the perpetual exhaustion gay folks feel as a result of the biased framework and myopic lens through which people characterize and appraise their speech and behaviors that disproportionately leans on the norms and mores of more prominent and visible communities (e.g. heterosexual men/women, sex-conservative culture) at the expense and to the exclusion of other communities without consideration of the unintentional discrimination that leaks into the interpretive algorithm and professionalism calculus through which we develop formal standards for appropriate, professional behavior/culture.
These days, I lie awake contemplatively ruminating on two fundamental questions: when does the protection of one group become the oppression of another? And how are competing priorities resolved?
Frequently, I wonder what voices are represented at the table for establishing the parameters for what is considered “inappropriate” or “unprofessional” conduct and if that table is truly representative and inclusive of the voices of the disempowered communities and disenfranchised identities that I have been raised, nurtured, and socialized in (e.g. gay, drag, sex-positive). How can we create academic and professional spaces that are safer and more amenable to a wider range of behavioral displays that are not automatically given an uncharitable appraisal of being socially inimical such that they necessarily need to change and comport to an inherently discriminatory professional cultural paradigm in medicine?
We need radical empathy and open communication.
Communication leads to education leads to understanding leads to change.