Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellow Jonathan Nguyen is concerned that, within the healthcare profession, dental professionals have been found to be among the least culturally competent when it comes to caring for patients who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ). He is also aware that LGBTQ health disparities—for instance, higher rates of HIV in gay and bisexual men and transgender women; and higher rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide across the community—are largely attributable to societal stigma and discrimination.
In partnership with the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Southern California, where Nguyen is a student in the School of Dentistry, Nguyen is tackling both of these issues with his Fellowship Project: he is conducting LGBTQ cultural sensitivity seminars for dental students, faculty, and pre-health undergraduate students in addition to providing oral health screenings and educational workshops on oral health, safe sex, and STIs to LGBTQ young adults. As part of the project, Nguyen also launched the Society of Queers and Allies in Dentistry (SQuAD), the first LGBTQ dental student organization at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, where is he a third year student.
Nguyen’s interests in improving the health of LGBTQ people and making the dental profession more welcoming are personal. “Growing up as a gay male, I used to be ashamed and scared of the stigma of HIV attached to the LGBTQ community,” he says. “I want to help empower my fellow community members to face their health issues with confidence and be able to combat social stigmas with pride.”
Empowering LGBTQ people to take control of their healthcare is important to eliminating LGBTQ health disparities. Knowledgeable, non-discriminatory healthcare providers are just as important—a fact that was reinforced to Nguyen at SQuAD’s first outreach event at the Models of Pride Conference hosted by the Los Angeles LGBT Center in October 2015. At the event, a transgender man shared several transphobic experiences in the dental clinic, including an orthodontic clinic that refused to treat him due to his transgender identity. Nguyen gave him an oral health screening and told him that SQuAD members would be happy to treat him at the dental school.
“As he was talking about how glad he was to be able to find dental professionals that would gladly take him as a patient, he began to tear up,” says Nguyen. “At that point, this project really fell into place for me and I realized how important it was. There are so many more people that I hope my project reaches.”
Nguyen is confident that SQuAD will provide the necessary infrastructure to alumni, underclassmen, and prospective dental students for his project to be sustained beyond his Fellowship year. He is also hopeful that it will bring more LGBTQ people into the dental profession, which is why he wants to expand SQuAD membership to other schools beyond USC.
“SQuAD is helping to create a safe space for LGBTQ dental professionals to come out and become role models for the LGBTQ community,” says Nguyen. “I definitely believe that by seeing it, you can be it. So I hope that SQuAD will inspire more LGBTQ individuals to pursue dentistry.”
Nguyen says that the supportive response to SQuAD has been the most surprising element of his experience as a Schweitzer Fellow.
“I discovered allies all around me,” he says. “I would walk through my school and people would stop me to say how awesome and interesting SQuAD is. It’s great to know that there are people who are genuinely interested in discussing the intersection of LGBTQ issues and dentistry and that SQuAD is finally opening this discussion.”
Moreover, being a Schweitzer Fellow has helped Nguyen become more aware of how small changes can add up to big results. Though his project was launched on a small scale, he says, “the impact it is making is much bigger than I had imagined it would be.”
“Before starting a project, it’s easy to be pessimistic and say the cons outweigh the pros,” Nguyen observes. “However, my project has really shown me that the leap of faith is worth it because support can come from anywhere and anyone once you get the ball rolling, and one small project can snowball into a large effect. I think that my fellowship has definitely encouraged me to take steps forward when it comes to public health issues because whether my presence is big or small, the impact is there and it adds a spark to the revolution.”