The End of Polite Conversation? Part One

This is part one of a two-part series. Click here for the conclusion.

On February 26, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have made it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers whose identity ran counter to the business owner’s religious views. Similar bills in other states are facing major opposition, as the majority of Americans increasingly see a person’s gender or sexual identity as that individual’s own private business, nothing else. But conservatives haven’t given up. And even if laws allowing businesses to deny services to LGBTs don’t come to pass, what’s stopping the butcher, the baker, or even worse, your doctor, from giving you an earful?

“You should get a medal,” my doctor said. He had just asked how long my husband and I had been married (eighteen years). “You should get reward stickers, like we give to our kids. Our culture should be rewarding your relationship, the right relationship.”

I felt my heartbeat quicken. Just minutes before, the nurse had clocked my blood pressure at a very desirable 110/70. I could feel those numbers shooting upwards with each breath. I wasn’t there to talk about my marriage, but my sleep habits—namely my insomnia—during my third, and hopefully last, visit.

Pulling into the parking lot for my first appointment, I’d been confronted with a huge shrine, complete with a towering statue of the Virgin Mary clutching baby Jesus to her breast and a lantern sitting at her feet with a flame lit in honor of unborn children. I sat and stared out my windshield at the sheer spectacle of it. There were benches around the statue where I suppose patients, or anyone else, could sit and pray, just a stone’s throw from our town’s tiny Planned Parenthood clinic (which does not provide abortions).

I wondered what the shrine might have cost, and assumed the medical practice was doing well; it had taken me awhile to get an appointment, and the parking lot was full. I was just so very, very tired. I attempted to blink away my morning headache, not yet relieved by my first dose of caffeine. I needed help sleeping, and this doctor was the only sleep specialist in town. And so I went in.

At that first visit, we discussed my insomnia at length. I learned a lot from the doctor about sleep cycles and what was considered “normal.” There was only one moment that made me feel uncomfortable. While going through my family history, the doctor had inappropriately asked why I’d “started so late” having children and why I had only two. He and his wife had eight. “She just finished breastfeeding, and she’s fifty,” he said proudly, as though he were the one producing the milk.

I laughed nervously and changed the subject. I’d gotten somewhat used to inappropriate comments, often of the conservative religious variety, since moving to my rural Ohio town ten years before. But the comments were often ones I simply overheard. Being confronted personally was something new.

At a recent visit to a different doctor, I noted the only reading material in the waiting room was the Bible. Furthermore, on the mirror above the coat rack, a collage had been created with quotes from Billy Graham overlapping ones from Abraham Lincoln. The unifying theme amongst the quotes, which took me some time to discern, was that God wanted people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I never would have put Lincoln and Graham together, there on the same mirror (which no one could actually use since the glass had been completely obscured) but my podiatrist apparently thought the two men were suitable bedfellows. My former dentist dispensed with any second-guessing concerning his motives. His only waiting room reading material was a stack of pamphlets on how to be born again.

After my second visit to the sleep specialist (during which we analyzed the results of an actigraph test that recorded my rest/activity cycles round the clock), I felt much more confident that I was on the path to sleeping better. The man had, in fact, helped me. And the only other annoying comment he’d made was: “If you wake up too early, just get out of bed and catch up on your Scriptures.” I wasn’t sure if he meant reading Scriptures would help me fall back to sleep, but I didn’t ask.

I had learned to sidestep the shrine on my way into his office. People are entitled to their opinions, I thought. I’ll just ignore it. Plus, I’d been taught as a kid to respect authority, such as that of the priest and deacons in our church, of my father, of anyone in uniform, including police officers, and, certainly, doctors. I tried to imagine the shoe on the other foot. What if I was a deeply conservative, religious woman visiting an openly gay sleep specialist? What if he commented on how lucky I was to have two children when he and his partner were having trouble adopting? I couldn’t hold the idea in my head for long; it was too absurd to imagine where I live.

Yes, it bothers me when professional people, of any profession, feel the need to broach topics such as religion completely out of context. Still, I’m not someone who enjoys confrontation; I wasn’t going to challenge the sleep specialist about it, as long as he didn’t take it too far. He’d stepped up to the imaginary line I’d drawn in my head, but he hadn’t stepped over it, not yet.

Click here to read part two of “The End of Polite Conversation?”