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social sciences

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By 1972, the attitudes of many nurses were becoming more accepting of homosexuality, as the medical establishment was also becoming more tolerant. The 1972 national convention of the American Nurses' Association (ANA) featured a session on "Straight Talk on Homosexuality" that attracted about 2,500 attendees. The speakers, both gay and gay-positive, called for a "humanization" of attitudes towards gay men and lesbians by the nursing establishment.

Organizing for Change

The first organization for gay, lesbian, and bisexual nurses formed in Philadelphia in 1973. Founded by Carolyn Innes and David Waldron, the Gay Nurses' Alliance (GNA) had both male and female members, though male members were in the forefront.

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GNA's first official act was to apply for a booth in the 1974 Pennsylvania Nurses Association convention. The application triggered a storm of controversy and the permit was denied. In response, GNA staged a walk-through exhibit and held a highly attended slide show, "Gay Patients/Straight Health Care," at the national convention of the ANA. The point of the exhibit was that prejudicial attitudes toward glbtq people interfered with patient care.

Nursing and the AIDS Crisis

The problem of prejudice became especially apparent as the AIDS crisis developed and deepened in the 1980s. There was a constant barrage of reports about the epidemic in the media and a public perception that AIDS resulted from deviant behavior. The result was nationwide hysteria and paranoia.

Some fearful nurses refused to treat AIDS patients. Those who did treat such patients were made to feel guilty for supposedly putting their families at risk of contracting the disease. Other nurses found that frightened friends refused to continue friendships as long as they had AIDS patients.

Nurses organized in the 1980s to oppose discrimination against persons with AIDS. Some led support groups for people with AIDS and their significant others. Others promoted AIDS education.

At the behest of nurse activists, the ANA officially opposed mandatory HIV testing, a proposal that would have targeted the gay male community.

The devastation that AIDS wreaked on the gay community also prompted many lesbians to become volunteer nurses. As helpers with AIDS homecare and hospice programs, they provided support and comfort to the ill and dying.

Such activism by lesbians on behalf of gay men led to criticism from some in the lesbian community. They argued that gay men had a history of doing little for lesbians and that gay men would not have come to the rescue of lesbians if the situation were reversed. Others countered that such attitudes were bigoted.

Nursing in the New Century

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, glbtq people remain marginalized within the profession of nursing. Perhaps as a consequence of this marginalization, the nursing profession has mostly remained silent about public policy issues involving glbtq people.

Even as research has increasingly revealed the negative health effects of stigma and other cultural attitudes for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals, the nursing profession has not adopted a proactive stance in assuring that glbtq people receive health care free of bias. Nor has it been in the forefront of efforts to deal with the specific or unique health needs of glbtq people.

The major organization for glbtq nurses, the GNA, now based in Wilmington, Delaware, remains in existence but it is quite small and has not been able to exert much influence on the profession as a whole. Other groups include Lavender Lamps, a New York-based national organization for lesbian and gay nurses, and several regional networks of gay and lesbian nurses.

The largest and most active glbtq health care organization, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA), has recently become concerned with the lack of activism within the nursing profession. At the 2005 GLMA meeting in Montreal, a special Nursing Roundtable discussed the prospects for creating an organized movement of glbtq nurses.

Such a movement is necessary both to protect the rights of glbtq nurses and to sensitize health workers in general to the needs of glbtq patients.

Caryn E. Neumann

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social sciences >> Overview:  AIDS Activism

In the United States, glbtq people have played an integral and often leading role in AIDS activism, greatly influencing AIDS treatment and advocacy.

social sciences >> Overview:  Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, the clinical process of treating mental and emotional health problems, has recently been energized by a movement to depathologize homosexuality and to enhance the dignity and self-respect of glbtq clients.

social sciences >> Overview:  Reparative Therapy

Reparative therapy is a dangerously misguided attempt, supported by homophobic religious organizations, to change a person's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

social sciences >> Overview:  Settlement House Movement

It is significant for glbtq history that a number of the women volunteers in the settlement house movement--which flourished at the turn of the twentieth century--formed close, lasting relationships with one another while living and working together.

social sciences >> Overview:  Social Work

Since the 1990s, Social Work has slowly become a more glbtq-friendly profession.

social sciences >> Addams, Jane

American reformer, social worker, peace activist, and Nobel Laureate Jane Addams is remembered as the founder of Hull House in Chicago, but her involvement in same-sex relationships has consistently been hidden or minimized by biographers.

social sciences >> Boston Marriages

Boston marriages--romantic unions between women that were usually monogamous but not necessarily sexual--flourished in the late nineteenth-century between women who tended to be college-educated, feminist, financially independent, and career-minded.

social sciences >> Cammermeyer, Margarethe

The highest-ranking official in the United States military to acknowledge her homosexuality while in the service, Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer served a number of years in the Washington State National Guard as an open lesbian.

social sciences >> Nightingale, Florence

Famous as the mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale was a tough reformer who fought for her right to a career and an individual identity in the stifling atmosphere of Victorian England.

social sciences >> Wald, Lillian

Lillian Wald, an American public health nurse and social reformer, is the model of a Victorian-era lesbian active in the settlement house movement.


American Nurses' Association. Personal Heroism, Professional Activism: Nursing and the Battle Against AIDS. Kansas City, Mo.: American Nurses' Association, 1988.

Bullough, Vern L., and Lilli Sentz, eds. American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Springer, 2000.

Dean, Laura, et al. "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health: Findings and Concerns." Journal of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association 4.3 (2000):

Durham, Jerry D., and Felissa L. Cohen. The Person With AIDS: Nursing Perspectives. New York: Springer, 1987.

Miller, Neil. "Lesbian and Gay Nurses: Nursing's Isolated Minority." Nursing Spectrum 6.24 (November 18, 1996): 10-11.

Rieder, Ines, and Patricia Ruppelt, eds. AIDS: The Women. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1988.

Sarnecky, Mary T. A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Neumann, Caryn E.  
    Entry Title: Nursing  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated December 13, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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