By now, you might've heard about the pediatrician in Michigan who turned away two lesbian moms and their 6-day-old daughter.
As a gay man, I thought I'd be outraged by the case, but as I read the details I was surprised by my actual response: sympathy for the doctor. Yes, really!
Her name's Vesna Roi, and she's been caring for babies for decades. In an apology note to the moms, she explained that "much prayer" had led her to believe that she "would not be able to develop the personal patient doctor relationship" with Krista and Jami Contreras and their newborn, Bay.
That and the "much prayer" comment tell us everything we need to know about what's really going on here: she's uncomfortable with lesbian couples. Okay, sure, fine. So are lots of people! Other people are uncomfortable around interracial couples, or Catholics, or babies. Personally, I'm uncomfortable around clowns.
I'm sympathetic to Dr. Roi because she probably feels that she made the right choice: if she didn't think she could form a strong relationship with the family, and knew that another doctor could probably do better, shouldn't they go to whoever can provide the best possible care?
After all, if I was a doctor and a clown came to me for treatment, we would probably both be happier if I sent him to a colleague, rather than huddling in a corner in terror with a tongue-depressor as my only means of self-defense.
But clown-discrimination isn't really a thing, and the patient could always just take off his big red nose. (Unless that's his actual nose, in which case he would probably need a specialist.)
So imagine if the stakes were higher, and there was a bigoted doctor who just didn't like treating black people. Or Jews. Or foreigners. That wouldn't be okay, since those attributes are fundamental to a person's identity, and the country has a pervasive history of terrible inequality on those grounds. That's why that kind of discrimination has been banned nationwide since The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Race, gender, national origin, and religion are all protected against discrimination, and if any business -- doctor, lawyer, florist, cobbler -- tried to turn someone away because of those classifications, there'd be an uproar. And rightly so! Not just because it's morally loathsome, but because who knew there were still cobblers?
But only a few states add sexual orientation to that list of protected attributes, which is why Dr. Roi's refusal to see the Contreras family was perfectly legal in Michigan. In California, she could have been sued. It's what I refer to as "The Big Gay Loophole" in The Civil Rights Act.
I put together this video to explain why businesses in so many states are allowed to just kick gay customers out the door:
I understand why Dr. Roi thought she was making the right choice. She felt that she was acting in the Contreras' best interests -- not to mention her own. In that respect, she's just like me, and pretty much everyone, in that she'd rather not put herself in an uncomfortable situation. I totally understand.
But sometimes, uncomfortable situations are how we grow and improve. Not just as individuals, but as a country. When the Civil Rights Act passed, there were lots of doctors (and lawyers and florists etc.) who didn't want any black clients. Nondiscrimination laws forced Americans to confront their discomfort and, in time, begin to get over it. And maybe someday we'll finish getting over it.
Of course, the most mouth-foaming of homophobes, like Pat Robertson, love to claim that this is an attack on religion. Selling flowers to a gay couple, he recently said, is like blessing a marriage between a man and a dog, which is a terribly polite way to talk about two people in love. Of course, nobody's attacking religious liberty. A florist who sells flowers to gays will discover that he's still free to practice his religion however he likes. Who knows, maybe he'll find that gay people aren't actually as bad as he thought. And if Pat Robertson really believes that the union of a loving, long-term, committed couple is the same as marrying a dog, then he's the one who doesn't understand what marriage is.
So let's be clear: I get why Dr. Roi thought she was making a compassionate choice. But I don't think she (or any other business) should be allowed to turn away gay clients, any more than a restaurant can have a no-interracial-couples rule, no matter how uncomfortable interracial couples make them.
What's needed is federal protection against discrimination. We need to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the groups covered by The Civil Rights Act. The Contreras family should have the same right as any other disfavored group to sue someone who illegally discriminates against them.
And even in the states where sexual orientation discrimination is legal, I think it's still a mistake to do so -- just as sexism was a mistake before The Civil Rights Act came along.
If Roi was prohibited from discriminating, then yes, the first few lesbian moms she sees might sense a little nervousness on her part. All she has to say is, "I've never had lesbian patients before, so I hope I can provide you with the best possible care, and please let me know if you feel like this isn't working out."
I'd be a little nervous about being the first patient to see a doctor who's still getting over her fear of me. But it's better than the alternative: allowing prejudices and fears to calcify to the point that they're impossible to remove from our culture.
I'm still struggling with my fear of clowns, but fortunately in the grand scheme of things it really isn't that important. But a doctor who can't provide fair treatment to the patients who come to her? That's a problem, and one that a smart, caring, sensitive caregiver can overcome.
It's not Dr. Roi's fault that she's uncomfortable with people who aren't like her -- that's just how humans are. Some of us recognize our irrational fears and try to address them. Others need a little nudge now and then to rethink our assumptions. A sometimes, we need the power of law to remind us that staying in our comfort zones can have serious consequences.