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The lifelong quest to stay relevant . . . and respectful

Attitudes towards gender and sexual diversity have changed tremendously over the course of my medical career.

When I began in medicine most of the gay people at McGill were very discreet. My LGBT+ classmates lived in fear of being outed, knowing it could lead to them being shunned, mistreated or even failed.

A prominent physician, who recently publicly thanked his husband for his “many years of love and support,” would have died to be publicly acknowledged as gay in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As one of my more out and acerbic friends said about him then, “he is so deep in the closet that he has mothballs up his crack!”

When I started my practice back in the ‘80s, my friend Lisa and I were among the first doctors in Montreal to provide obstetrics care for same-sex couples. In those days it was simple enough for any doctor to order sperm and either do inseminations in the office or, as I preferred, let people take the kit home and do it themselves. I used to say that babies were best conceived in the context of an act of love. We started to do this when the infertility clinics we approached refused to see Lesbian patients. “We don’t believe society is ready for this kind of thing,” the head of one clinic informed me. “Besides, your patients don’t have an infertility problem, they have a penis problem.” So, in the face of this lack of help we decided, much like the little red hen, to do it ourselves. And so we did. 

A few years later, one of my patients had back to back ectopic pregnancies after my office inseminations. I sent her to the infertility clinic, thinking that now that she had a real infertility problem, they would surely take care of her. I was mistaken. Not only did they not care for her medically, they publicly outed and humiliated her in the waiting room in front of all the patients. 

After having her baby in Toronto, my patient, a top litigation lawyer, sued the clinic. Finally society, and the clinic, was ready for this social change. I know the head of the clinic was deeply conservative, but he was forced to move with the times.    

Fast-forwarding to today, we’re still learning as the world changes and we sometimes find our teachers in unexpected places. My husband Dave and I took our 11-year-old granddaughter, whom I will call Elle for this story, to Niagara On The Lake, Ont. to go to the Shaw Festival along with her beloved Auntie Eri. This is peak Feldman-Glaser nerdiness: spending a week in an idyllic southern Ontario town—where it seems the entire population is required by law to have a beautiful garden—watching plays, eating fresh produce and all kinds of good food. For Elle this was her first time away from her parents for any significant period, making it a big adventure. The first morning we explored the picturesque little town. We then went to our first theater piece: a celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. 

In a little pavilion behind the theatre, people got on stage and sang. A band played the show tunes, many of which were songs of my childhood. There was, however, an interesting twist. The singers were of all different races and body types. Even the last time I was at NOTL, most of the performers were white and thin. While originally from plays with cis-straight couples, the love songs were now presented in many different relationship combos. It struck me that these changes made it possible for a wider variety of talented and different people to be cast. Elle loved the music, the romance, the singing. She sat at the edge of her seat, eyes shining. 

Our family has a rainbow of relationship configurations, and that is what Elle has grown up with. In this way she is very like other kids in her milieu. Most of the children she goes to school with and most of the children of my colleagues are very comfortable with gender fluidity. To them, it is simply the way things are. 

A few days later, we went to one of the hat stores along Queen Street. While Eri, Elle and I tried on many, many hats, Elle was chatting with the owner, a woman around my own age. Elle told her what a lovely shop she had and thanked her for helping pick out the adorable lavender-colored straw hat she eventually bought. “What a charming, well mannered, little girl!” the lady said to me as Elle was helping her Auntie Eri pick out her hat. “Thank you,” I said with pride. “We like her.” 

The conversation then turned to what plays Elle had seen so far. Elle mentioned Prince Caspian and the Song Evening. The lady had some issues with that show. “I don’t mind people being gay and all, but I get so confused, with all the pronoun stuff. How am I supposed to know what to call people?” She sounded genuinely perplexed, and a bit put out. I had sympathy for her. It is hard to change the habits of a life-time. I have often slipped up and called one of my children’s partners by the wrong pronoun, as much as I try. Or I have failed to understand the realities of sex and dating in the internet age. It’s a brave new world for me as well. Being avant-garde in the ‘80s and ‘90s will not prevent you from becoming an old fuddy-duddy in the 2020s.

Elle looked at her. “The best thing to do is to ask them, isn’t it? That’s polite. You wouldn’t like me to call you Sophie if your name is Sheila, would you?” The lady looked at my little granddaughter in her pink and lavender outfit, holding her Barbie doll, her new hat perched on her curls, and then at me. “This little girl has an old soul,” she said. 

In response to all the current controversy around gender-affirming care, there is never a reason to be impolite.