17 June 2017
Dr. Justin Varney works for Public Health England. He writes about his recent award for addressing health inequalities affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and supporting LGBT healthcare professionals
In April I was honoured to receive the David Harvey Award for my contribution to addressing health inequalities affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and supporting LGBT healthcare professionals. The award was given by the Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists, which is the national charity supporting LGBT doctors and dentists and their student colleagues.
The David Harvey Award is named in honour of the prominent paediatrician, who was out as a gay man for most of his professional life. He was not afraid to stand up and be counted at a time when many gay professionals felt unable to do so.
As part of the Award I was asked to give the Peter King Memorial Lecture. I chose to speak about privilege.
I have been fortunate to have a life full of lots of types of privilege. As a white educated cis-man who grew up in a family full of love and stimulation, I have been incredibly supported and been exposed to diverse and vibrant experiences. I have been really privileged to be surrounded by people who have supported me to speak out on human rights issues and particularly on LGBT issues.
As a doctor, and someone working in public health, I have also been very privileged to get a ‘seat at the table’ and be part of strategic conversations. Often this seat comes as a result of my professional role and my LGBT health inequalities role, but sometimes also when I have been in a community role leading Southwark’s LGBT network or as an independent advisor on LGBT issues to the Metropolitan Police.
Some of the important differences between privilege and entitlement are gratitude, humility and the appetite to learn. Often because I only have one seat at the table I have had to learn to be a mouth piece for a vibrant and diverse community, taking time in my preparation to listen and learn from different parts of the LGB&T communities and think about how I can articulate their views and voices through my seat and position. It hasn’t always been an easy role, nor have I always got it right first time, and at times there have been vertical learning curves. But I hope that I have tried to be open to hearing and had a good go at representing the diverse views across our community.
When I accepted the award I did so in a green evening dress, no make-up and sensible shoes. I do not identify as trans, although I have sometimes explored gender fluidity in terms of my clothing choices, there was a clear reason for my choice of outfit for the evening.
Over ten years ago I gave a key note speech at the national HIV CHAPS conference wearing a ball gown. During that speech I talked about the importance of valuing diversity in our LGBT community and coming together to work across boundaries and silos for a common good. At the end of the talk I highlighted that if the audience had not heard what I was saying because they were focused on my dress then they were probably working in the wrong sector. Working with diverse communities, in fact working in public health in general, is about being open to hearing what someone says and looking deeper than the clothes they wear or the colour and cut of their hair, however too often we get stuck on that initial visual assessment, we don’t take more than six seconds to click the mental ‘thumbs up or thumbs down’ in our heads.
It is perhaps a sign of how far we have come, or perhaps my privilege, that PHE chose to run the internal news piece celebrating the award with a photograph of me in a dress with my award and all of the feedback was in the form of compliments on the colour and cut of my dress.