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social sciences

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Nursing has been both welcoming and hostile to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered. One of the few professions open to women through the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, nursing paid well enough to allow women to live independently of men. However, until recently most nurses accepted the medical view of homosexuality as a psychiatric illness.

While most nurses--whether male or female--were and are heterosexual, nursing is important to glbtq history. A number of lesbians were crucial in the development of nursing and allied fields, including social work and public health. And because nursing has been thought of as a woman's profession, male nurses have suffered the stigma of being suspected of homosexuality.

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This stigma has, undoubtedly, prevented many potential male nurses--both heterosexual and homosexual--from entering the profession.

Origins of the Profession

Nursing originated as one of the maternal crafts, a service traditionally performed by women with little or no training who served for love not gain. Nursing slowly began to professionalize in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ranks of nurses soon divided into highly-educated professional or registered nurses and less-educated practical nurses.

However, many Americans, including doctors and hospital administrators, continued to see all nursing as a lowly trade, only slightly above the servant level. Nurses were subordinate to doctors, served others, and had limited possibilities for advancement.

More recently, however, the prestige of nursing has risen. As attention has focused on chronic shortages in the field, the public has come to recognize both the importance of nursing in general and, to a lesser extent, the wide variety of nursing career options. Many nurses now have advanced degrees and work in a variety of settings, including as educators and researchers, as well as in hospitals, where they may be trained in a number of specialties.

Male Nurses

Until recently, it was unimaginable to many Americans and Europeans that a real man would be interested in nursing. Male nurses remained, therefore, extremely rare. The few who persisted in the career experienced considerable prejudice for violating gender norms and suffered the stigma of being suspected of homosexuality.

The extent to which nursing had become a woman's job in the eyes of the general public is seen by the U. S. military's refusal to accept male nurses despite the urgency of World War II. Many in the military hierarchy viewed male nurses as homosexual because they had trained for a "feminine" profession.

The percentage of male nurses in American military and civilian life remained at less than 5 percent for much of the twentieth century and today remains well below 10 percent.

Even today there is an assumption that a large percentage of male nurses are homosexual. As homosexuality has become more acceptable in the larger society, however, male nurses, whatever their actual sexual orientation, have correspondingly found greater acceptance within the nursing profession.

Still, the presumption that most male nurses are gay continues to be problematic. For example, in an effort to dispel the stigma associated with males in nursing, recruiting programs often emphasize that nursing is a "manly" profession peopled by heterosexuals. While that may be true to some extent, such recruitment efforts have the effects of diminishing the enormous contributions of gay men to nursing, of implying that gay men are not "manly," and of further marginalizing gay men in nursing.

Lesbian Nurses

Until the mid-twentieth century, few registered nurses married. Many of the early nurses saw nursing as a mission to heal, akin to a religious calling. They devoted their lives to their mission. They did not believe that a woman could take care of a husband, children, and patients at the same time.

As a result, many nurses lived their lives without emotional attachments to men. They found affection from close association with networks of women and with one or more female friends, with whom they may have formed romantic friendships or . Although these women probably did not themselves identify as "lesbian," such women have since been categorized by historians as lesbian. Other nurses were more clearly lesbian in the modern definition of engaging in sexual relationships with women.

Outstanding nurses who can be categorized as lesbian include the following women who made significant contributions to the field.

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