June is Pride Month: A Look at the Past, Present, and Future of Identifying as LGBTQ+ at GSDM
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a well-known Greenwich Village bar that served as a safe haven for young members of the LGBTQ+ community. This raid sparked a riot, pitting bar patrons and neighborhood residents against law enforcement, and led to multiple days of protests.
This event, which came to be known as the Stonewall Riots, is viewed as the catalyst for political activism in support of gay rights, ultimately leading to the creation of organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
Nowadays, June is recognized as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) Pride Month to honor the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Pride Month, which celebrates the advancements of the LGBTQ+ community, is often thought of as a time with uplifting parades, but it is much more than just joyous festivities. It is also a history lesson.
In recognition of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we reached out via GSDM LGBTQ+ organizations and Development & Alumni Relations, hoping to speak with members of GSDM community who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ to discuss the “past, present, and future” of what it means to be LGBTQ+ at GSDM. Ultimately, we spoke with seven GSDM community members – students, staff, faculty, and alum alike – and here’s what they had to say.
The Past: How Much Change Has Been Made?
When Dr. Ricardo Mendoza PEDO 95 attended GSDM as a resident in pediatric dentistry, his nine fellow residents were aware he was gay, but it was never openly discussed. That was the norm twenty-five years ago, he said.
During his residency, he never received any homophobic comments from his fellow residents, all of whom identified as female. At the time, he didn’t feel like he was missing out by not having any LGBTQ+ support groups or LGBTQ+-related health topics in his dental education, in part because he didn’t have any experiences otherwise.
Now, as a 50-year-old married gay man with two children, he recognizes that younger generations who identity as LGBTQ+, do not necessarily think the same way — and he does wonder what life might have been like during residency if there was a more public LGBTQ+ community at GSDM, like the Society for Queers and Allies in Dentistry, a GSDM student organization that was formed recently.
“I don’t think it felt like I was so deprived or lacking support because I did have some group of friends, that’s what happened back then,” he said. “You just go back to your little safe zone that you have created with among two or three or four friends, whatever that is, and you live your life.”
Even though there weren’t official public groups devoted to the LGTBQ+ community when Mendoza was a resident, leadership at GSDM worked hard to create an inclusive environment for faculty, staff, and students.
Richard Rabbett MET 10 has been a member of the Boston University community since the 1980s, first as an undergraduate, now as the GSDM director of faculty affairs and operations. When he started working at GSDM in the 1990s, he said former Dean Spencer Frankl and his daughter Catherine Sarkis, then an assistant professor of health policy and health service research, now a clinical professor of health policy and health service research, created a welcoming and uplifting environment that – although this phrase wasn’t in use at the time – allowed people to be their true, authentic selves. As an out gay man in the 1990s, Rabbett said having support at his workplace was comforting.
“We were always encouraged to be ourselves,” Rabbett said. “There was nothing that was held back. You could be yourself; you could be out. And it was great. Honestly, I must say truthfully, in all the years I’ve worked here since back to 1990, I’ve never felt put upon to be in the closet or be stymied or not talk about who I was with at that time or today.”
Before Claudiu Buck DMD 23, a married gay man, started his dental education in the United States, he knew he wanted to work with like-minded peers at his school’s LGBTQ+ organization. When he arrived at GSDM in 2021, he was surprised to find that the school did not yet have such an organization. He realized there was only one solution – to create it himself.
“All of this is because when I first started dental school, that was in 2007 in Romania, it was a completely different experience,” Buck said. “The school had no programs or no organizations or no LGBT people in the school, so my experience was completely different.”
Buck met Tommie Chavis II CAMED 18 DMD 23, who had similar goals, and throughout their time at GSDM, they worked closely with faculty, staff, and fellow students to co-found a new student organization: SQuAD (the Society for Queers and Allies in Dentistry.) When SQuAD officially launched in May 2022, Buck wanted to use his position as co-founder and president to set the tone and goals for the organization’s future. At its core, SQuAD exists to promote awareness and education for LGBTQ+ related issues.
“I just wanted visibility,” Buck said. “I wanted visibility for the LGBT+ community in the school, and to educate students, and to push more programs within the school to educate students for LGBT+ patients to feel comfortable coming out and to bridge their potential.”
As SQuAD’s co-founder and senior advisor, and a gay and queer man himself, Chavis said he wanted to help make queer students and allies feel more comfortable and accepted at GSDM. He noted that the implementation during matriculation week of mandatory SafeZone training – an introductory seminar that gives students the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ+ identities, gender, and sexuality, as well as examines prejudice, assumptions, and privilege – is an excellent way to ensure that everyone feels instantly welcomed in the GSDM community.
“The [dental] community is definitely moving in the right direction for the queer community, including [at] GSDM,” Chavis said. “In my time at the school, SafeZone training was always optional, but with the matriculating classes in 2022, the school moved to make SafeZone required, which was a big step.”
Buck agreed that GSDM has grown a lot in the two years he was a student here.
“It was a completely different situation for the first-year advanced standing [students] compared to when I started,” Buck said. “Small changes like this really make a difference.”
In addition to his role with SQuAD, Chavis has been at-large board member at the national nonprofit organization Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID) since August 2021. With SAID, his goal was to increase access to dental care for both the LGBTQ+ and the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One of his biggest accomplishments was adding a continuing education course to the SAID annual conference in 2022 that taught providers how to best support and treat LGBTQ+ patients.
“A big focus of this course was those who identify as transgender while broadly applying to other queer individuals as well,” Chavis said. “This was momentous for our organization since our annual meeting is usually during Pride Month every year.”
Since the start of his Advanced Standing program last summer, Sergio Londono DMD AS 24 has been grateful for the existence of SQuAD. As a gay man himself, Londono has found his classmates to be respectful, albeit curious and inquisitive, about what it means to be publicly out as a gay man. Following learning about SQuAD during his SafeZone training and after discussing with his colleagues at different universities who did not have similar training, he was interested in becoming a member of SQuAD.
Londono wanted to take advantage of having a platform to safely discuss LGBTQ+ issues, unlike some of his peers from other universities who did not have comparable LGBTQ+ student organizations.
“At least they give us the space, that’s when I joined the SQuAD,” Londono said.
One of SQuAD’s faculty advisors, Dr. Fernando Harp Ruiz, clinical assistant professor of general dentistry, said he is thankful to be a part of the organization in any way he can. During his own dental education, Harp Ruiz did not have access to an LGBTQ+ organization, and he recognizes how valuable it can be to members of that community to have an inclusive, safe space.
As a gay faculty member, Harp Ruiz said he feels a responsibility to be vocal about his identity and act as a positive LGBTQ+ role model to fellow faculty, staff, students, residents, and patients, a duty he takes on proudly. Although he acknowledges that he has passing privilege, meaning the ability to outwardly appear or “pass” as a heterosexual cis-gender male, he believes it’s vital to have any LGBTQ+ representation, regardless of outward appearance.
“I have a passing privilege. So, since I started working here and I realized like [I am one of, if not] the only openly gay faculty, and that struck me, and I took it seriously,” Harp Ruiz said. “So, I want to be that person who can provide, not just for the students, but also for the patients.”
After attending the first diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging meeting in 2019, Jason Stevens, GSDM assistant director of faculty affairs, working with Lisa Collins, global and population health research project director, was motivated to create a GSDM staff LGBTQ+ group, which later became the Rainbow Alliance.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Stevens said their goal was to have Rainbow Alliance become an informal and casual social and discussion group both for GSDM staff members who identify as LGBTQ+ and for allies.
“This isn’t a therapy group per se,” Stevens said. “It’s largely a socialization group. It’s nice to have a group of like-minded people, people who can understand some of your struggles to connect with and to just meet other people at GSDM who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella.”
Rabbett said he has been proud to witness to expansion of the LGBTQ+ community over the course of his tenure at GSDM.
“It just shows you the evolution of the whole community has been so amazing over the 30 years that I’ve identified as an out gay person,” Rabbett said.
The Present: How can We be a Better Ally Today?
Simply put, Harp Ruiz said it’s impossible to be neutral in support towards the LGBTQ+ community: either someone is an ally, or they are not.
To be an effective ally, Harp Ruiz urges members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies alike to educate themselves on LGBTQ+ issues, including by attending GSDM faculty development days that discuss topics like how to provide dental care to people with HIV.
“I think that nowadays either you’re… I mean, it’s going to sound a little bit extreme, but either you are with it or you’re against it,” Harp Ruiz said. “You can’t really be any more say, ‘Oh, I don’t care. Do what you want, but as long as it doesn’t affect me.’ Everything’s so polarized nowadays that it’s either you’re with or without, you’re with us or against us kind of situation… You can’t be neutral over this because it’s [about] people’s rights and wellbeing that you’re not caring about.”
With SQuAD, Buck has worked hard to expose organization members to a wide range of LGBTQ+ related research, such as topics on how to cope with stress as an LGBTQ+ healthcare professional and how to help the LGBTQ+ community receive equitable healthcare. He hopes SQuAD’s future executive board will continue to expand this educational mission.
“It’s important because that’s going to help [give students] more education about how to treat patients or [will] help current students to come out or to feel more comfortable,” Buck said. “[When they are] feeling more comfortable, they’re going to give more and perform better within the school.”
Another key part of LGBTQ+ education is learning and recognizing the importance of pronouns. Asking for someone’s preferred pronouns helps affirm someone’s gender identity and creates a safe environment. Stevens said there are many ways to show pronoun-usage sensitivity.
“I think that volunteering your pronouns is even better than asking other people theirs because then it doesn’t put pressure on them in the same way as, ‘Hey, what are your pronouns?’” said Stevens, who uses he/him and they/them pronouns and uses different labels within different contexts for how they identity as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. “[Instead] it’s, ‘Hi, I’m Jason and I use he/him, or they/them pronouns. Nice to meet you,’ Then that gives the person an opportunity. If they want to share their pronouns, great, but then you aren’t forcing them if they don’t.”
When it comes to LGBTQ+ education, it’s best to keep an open mind and be vulnerable, Stevens said.
“Different people may use different words to refer to themselves that you might not be as familiar with, and it’s okay to not know everything,” Stevens said. “It’s okay to make mistakes. The important thing is that you keep educating yourself and you keep putting in a good faith effort.”
Rabbett said he has worked to educate himself on different subsets of the community with which he is personally unfamiliar. He adds that there should be some grace given to all allies who are learning.
“I would think I’m very open-minded, but to learn new language, learn new terminology, learn new points of view, it’s been really fascinating,” Rabbett said. “So, I think in that respect, if an old dog could learn new tricks, I’m hoping the whole community is open and receptive.”
At his practice, Chicago Smile Specialists, Mendoza has his staff undergo cultural sensitivity training to learn about potential LGBTQ+ topics in the dental setting, including pronoun usage.
Even as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Mendoza said he’s made mistakes related to pronouns, but he stresses it’s important to apologize, correct, and be more conscious for next time.
“We’re all unique individuals and that’s my message with my own kids and this is what I preach every day in my office,” Mendoza said. “Not like I’m a preacher or anything like that, but this is what I tell my staff, so everybody gets treated with respect.”
Londono said the best way someone can be an LGBTQ+ ally is to be supportive. The root of dentistry is caring for humans – and those same principles apply to advocating for the LBGTQ+ community. Support can take many forms, including attending meetings of LGBTQ+ organization, like SQuAD or Rainbow Alliance.
“I feel like now our generation, the new generation, is very open and they want to be called how they represent and how they feel. I think as a medical [professional], you have to respect that and how to manage and treat those patients,” Londono said.
Chavis said allies can also show support by attending local pride parades and festivals, supporting local LGBTQ+ artists, and donating to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, like the Human Rights Campaign.
“Being an ally continues to promote acceptance,” Chavis said. “Queer people deserve to have the same rights as everyone else, and support from allies is conducive for systemic acceptance.”
The Future: How Can We Keep Improving?
Although there have been significant improvements for the LGBTQ+ community at GSDM and within the dental community more broadly, everyone we spoke to for this piece said there is still more work to do.
Harp Ruiz said LGBTQ+ Pride month is an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the progression of LGBTQ+ rights, but to also recognize the fight is nowhere near being finished.
“It’s gotten better for some of us, but not for all of us,” Harp Ruiz said.
To continue building an inclusive LGBTQ+ community within the dental profession, Mendoza said awareness and acceptance of diversity must start at the dental school level.
“I don’t think a dentist graduating today … would be unaware of the importance of embracing diversity and inclusion,” Mendoza said. “Knowledge is powerful. If you are aware of it and you learn, that less and less chances of any possible type of discrimination will happen.”
Harp Ruiz, Buck, Londono, and Chavis all said they’d like to see LGBTQ+ content within the dental curriculum, including information on using PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) as a preventive medicine for individuals who are HIV negative.
“I think we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to understand and relate to patients who identify as queer as well as the medical implications of being part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Chavis said. “There are still providers who don’t understand what the indications of PrEP are, but this can be solved with simple education.”
As for the future of SQuAD, Buck said he didn’t create the organization for recognition – all he wants is for the organization to continue expanding. If dental students have LGBTQ+ topics in their classes and participate in LGBTQ+ organizations during their schooling, Buck thinks this will have a positive effect once they enter the dental field professionally.
“First, if you have awareness, encourage students and current dentists, as the school can offer the skills to act on this awareness,” Buck said. “Once they offer the skills, they kind of get committed and they can provide the knowledge, the knowledge and the skills and awareness. They can have the expertise to just move things across.”
With the Rainbow Alliance, Stevens is hoping to have more regular meetings. He is pleased to see that the Alliance is part of a “constellation of resources at Boston University.”
“It’s always a little bit of a challenge as someone in the LGBTQ+ community to figure out that balance of being yourself versus professionalism,” Stevens said. “Overall, I’ve found the atmosphere of GSDM to be very good and very welcoming. And I’m happy personally that I feel like I have found a good balance of being authentic at work while still being able to be professional and be perceived by others as professional.”
Change is vital for continual improvement, Londono stressed. He hopes to see more LGBTQ+ organizations gain visibility and continue to make an impact.
“If nothing happens, everything is going to stay the same,” Londono said. “So, you must see what is happening before seeing a change, and it must start somewhere. So, that is very important, and especially in the LGBTQ+ community has been a tremendous change even since I’ve been [in the United States.] People are more open. People know more. There’s still a lot of things to do, but to have a better future, it’s important to see the past.”
Instead of trying to ignore LGBTQ+ history, it’s critical to reflect on the past to inspire the future, Rabbett said.
“Spring is a new season where we have growth and sort of rejuvenation and that’s what pride is,” Rabbett said. “It’s growth, personal outreach, [and] becoming your best self among your peers and your community.”
Chavis said the LGBTQ+ community has sought out, and will continue to strive to do, amazing things. He eagerly looks forward to seeing the community thrive in their own unique paths.
“It is important to honor Pride Month, to remember where we came from, what our current struggles are, and how we can address them to make it better for individuals in the future,” Chavis said. “Queer people will not be erased from history; we are here to stay.”