I’m orienting as a charge nurse at a clinic. A middle-aged gay man (well, late middle age), surrounded by young women. Something odd happened that I want to share. My clinical partner, a charge nurse with 35 years of experience, pulled me into a room. “I’m going to tell you something awkward. Some of the nurses have said they feel uncomfortable when you touch them on the shoulder.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I honestly didn’t remember ever touching anyone and said as much. However, later that same day I actually caught myself just as I was about to touch a coworker on the shoulder and say, “Thanks for helping me with that patient.”  So I had touched someone….without their permission, without thinking about it.  I really had to rethink my behavior toward the opposite sex in the current climate.

Women are finding their power. Things that might have slipped by in the past are no longer going to get a pass. Frankly, I think it was a long (centuries) time coming. I hope it continues. I know it will. I’m excited to live in a time where women’s rights and female empowerment is in ascendancy.

I guess I just thought that being gay somehow made me immune from charges of sexual harassment (from women at least). This is just not the case. Harassment is in the eye of the beholder. If someone is uncomfortable with something, he or she has a right to their feelings, even if, from the other side, he/she/we may feel that nothing was done wrong (or at least intended). It’s hard to grasp, but important. Harassment is whatever someone says it is.

I admit, my feelings were hurt. I did not intend to make a coworker uncomfortable. My being gay or straight has no bearing on the issue of someone else’s feelings. I won’t argue that I didn’t mean to. I won’t say that I’m a hugger, or come from an affectionate family. Whatever my reasons for touching someone without their permission are not pertinent. All I can do is identify the behavior that caused the problem and fix it going forward.

Some might argue that the pendulum of women’s rights has swung too far. Anyone can say they feel harassed about anything. Any innocent touch, a pat on the back, is harassment and it’s just too crazy. That’s not the way to look at it. The #MeToo movement did not happen in a vacuum. It takes place in the context of an entire human history of women being treated as property and all that entails. There was a time when gay-bashing was, if not a national past-time, at least a frequent diversion, and I’ve been the victim of it several times. Gay rights didn’t happen in a vacuum, either. The broken body of Mathew Sheppard brings to mind exactly why we are fighting. Now, women are fighting.

What I’m saying is that I understand that women have a right to be seen and heard, respected, and not touched in the workplace. They have a right to pick and choose how they will be interacted with and what is appropriate. They fought for that right and continue to do so.

I’m glad that someone thought enough about me to point out something I could improve upon in my work life. I’ll keep an open mind, and my hands to myself in the future.

Spencer Miller, RN

Spencer Miller, RN, is an emergency room nurse who has worked at various hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and California as a traveler. He currently lives in Sunnyvale, California.
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