Kimberly Zayhowski, MS, CGC (she/her); Nina Sheridan, MS, (she/her)
June is Pride Month, a time to both celebrate LGBTQIA+ people and bring attention to systems of queer oppression which need to be dismantled. One way we can actively support our queer peers is by interrogating the standards of 'professionalism' in our field. Genetic counselor Ambreen Khan gave a thought-provoking presentation at the NSGC 40th Annual Conference on how standards of ‘professionalism’ carry oppressive ideologies. She demonstrated how ‘professionalism’ encourages obedience and detracts from authenticity and relationship-building. In this piece we aim to bring additional attention to how expectations of behavior and dress modulated by standards of ‘professionalism’ contribute to queer erasure.
Professionalism and ‘acting the part’
What does it mean to ‘act like a genetic counselor’ when the field is notoriously homogenous, comprising mostly of cisgender, heterosexual, and white women? Genetic counselor Tala Berro has written a personal account on how in graduate training they were critiqued on their values, beliefs, and cultural upbringing rather than on their skills and expertise. This is far too common of an experience for genetic counseling students with underrepresented identities. One of the standards of ‘professionalism’ is to remain apolitical in the workplace. Existing as a queer person is a political act. What do you do when your identity is ‘unprofessional?’ As seen through LGBTQIA+ history, queerness is inherently political in America. Similarly, the lives of people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities all have been heavily politicized. Being forced to remain silent about core aspects of your identity is just one form of oppression in the workplace that encourages conformity and prevents progress.
Toxic standards of ‘professionalism’ are baked into graduate training environments. Often students are taught to ‘respect authority’ and receive pushback when their ideas deviate from their supervisors’. This hierarchical system fails to recognize the value of minority students’ experiences and stifles students’ abilities to develop their own identities as genetic counselors. In order to truly foster student growth and empowerment, training programs and supervisors must welcome the innovation that comes with new perspectives and encourage students to express themselves authentically. Queer representation can also create a comforting and safer environment for queer patients who commonly face discrimination in the healthcare setting.
Dress codes and ‘looking the part’
What makes an individual’s appearance ‘appropriate?’ Genetic counseling programs and clinics often put an emphasis on having a ‘professional appearance’ to limit ‘distractions’ to others. Dress codes have been weaponized against queer communities, as evidenced by sex-based dress codes that partially catalyzed the Stonewall Riots and the rise of the gay rights movement in America. To this day, celebrating freedom of self-expression and self-determination are core aspects of queer culture. Many forms of self-expression, including certain hairstyles and colors, piercings, tattoos, and general attire, are deemed ‘distracting’ and are discouraged in dress codes. Similarly, it is common to have (cis)gender-based dress codes that reinforce cissexism. For many gender-diverse people, subscribing to dress codes requires conforming to a binary that is not in line with their identities.
To police the way genetic counseling students and peers present themselves is to tell them they will only be accepted and respected if they abide by standards entrenched in whiteness, fatphobia, cisheteronormativity, sexism, and class privilege. ‘Professional attire’ rarely includes non-Western dress. BIPOC individuals commonly face objections to their hair textures and styles. Fat people are held to different clothing standards than thin people are. Women’s clothing is overpoliced because of sexist ideals of modesty, promoting a culture of victim-blaming. ‘Business attire’ can be financially unattainable for some people. This all can manifest in unfair evaluations for failing to meet standards of ‘professionalism,’ and may cause others to feel justified in rejecting a person due to their lack of conformity. To continue to enforce a dress code is to exert unnecessary control over our bodies, our gender expression, and the way in which we present ourselves to the world.
Deconstructing ‘professionalism’ to increase queer belonging
As we conflate our capabilities and expertise as genetics professionals with the white, cisheteronormative standards of ‘professionalism,’ we normalize systems of oppression, dilute individuality, and further ostracize members of our community who hold identities that have been marginalized. We all need to take a deep look at the spaces that we are in - what oppressive ideologies underscore our standards, and what can we do to change them? Are our dress codes purposeful, inclusive, or even necessary? Trusting people’s judgment and allowing them to be authentically themselves will ultimately increase a sense of belonging for people in our field. While it is essential to advocate for queer people in all months, let’s use the vigor from Pride Month to create lasting change in our profession.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely our own and do not reflect the views and opinions of our employers.
Kimberly Zayhowski, MS, CGC (she/her) is a cancer genetic counselor at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor at Boston University’s Genetic Counseling Program. A queer, multiracial genetic counselor, Kim dedicates much of her time to advocating for justice for the LGBTQIA+ community through talks, research, and blog posts.
Nina Sheridan, MS, (she/her) is a multidisciplinary genetic counselor at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in North Carolina. She works to intertwine her passions for queer and intersex advocacy, reproductive justice, and sex education into her work as a genetic counselor.