This post is part of an on-going series exploring the ways in which marginalized identities and oppression play a role in medical care, particularly for disabled people. 

Last Friday, my husband and I hobbled into the emergency department to have him seen for some very concerning symptoms. Despite presenting with many of the symptoms of a heart attack, he was shunted to the side with looks of disdain from the nursing staff and doctors. While I can’t know for certain why the doctors chose to treat us the way they did, I believe it had to do with our appearance and our divergence from gender norms.

When we made our way into the hospital, my husband looked as he usually does: pale blue-green hair shaved all around except for the top of his head with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, tattoos, and a kilt. The receptionist we initially dealt with was absolutely lovely, but almost every person we dealt with after that point took one look at Husband before judgement crossed their faces.

With monitors beeping louder and louder as an alert that his breathing rate had fallen too low, we were ignored. Left to deal with it on our own, even though difficulty breathing was the main symptom that brought us in. Each nurse and doctor hurried quickly out of the room, often leaving us in the dark as to what was going on.

When the doctor finally came in with the test results, he told us that there was nothing wrong and we were being sent home. Then we got the blood work results which revealed quite a few concerning numbers that apparently didn’t matter to the emergency room doctors.

Were this an isolated incident, I would write it off. Yet, nearly every time my husband or I seek medical attention from urgent care or an emergency department, we face the same treatment. The looks that show us they believe we are drug seeking. The looks that show we are seen as a waste of time. The looks of barely hidden judgement at our appearance. Watching those who appear more normative receive more attention and faster care. Ignored test results. Dismissal of pain. Substandard care from the facilities we have gone to in desperation.

Neither my husband nor I conform to gender norms or societal norms. Our hair, our clothes, our mannerisms are not what is expected of us, and, sadly, far too often we are punished for this by medical professionals. Yet, the healthcare I receive should not depend on my adherence to social norms.

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath which, among other pledges, includes and oath to “remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” Yet, when a patient comes in who defies societal norms, they are often treated with disdain and dismissal rather than sympathy and understanding.

Quality of healthcare should not depend upon the outfit worn.

Quality of healthcare should not depend upon hairstyle or color.

Quality of healthcare should not depend on gender presentation.

Quality of healthcare should not be dependent upon adherence to social norms.

The judgement applied to alternative style by doctors intersects with many systems of oppression. Many neurodivergent people dress and style themselves in ways outside of social norms for a variety of reasons. It may be a lack of understanding of social norms, need for specific clothing due to sensory issues, or just because they like it and don’t feel a need to conform to the prescribed way of presentation.

People of color face a great deal of bias and oppression in the medical field (You can read more here and here). Part of this bias in care comes down to stereotypes and profiling. As we have seen in studies of hiring practices and workplace dress codes, natural and authentic styles for people of color are often seen as alternative or counterculture and used as a means to discriminate.

As studies have shown, transgender people are regularly discriminated against and harassed in health care settings, which takes a toll on their overall health. Those who do not conform to gender roles are often dismissed, belittled, or turned away by medical professionals.

This is unacceptable. All people should be able to access medical care that takes their health seriously. Treatment of patients should not be based upon appearance, race, gender, or any other factor that is used to divide us. No one should be ignored or belittled when seeking medical attention.

The quality of our healthcare should not depend upon our adherence to social norms.