This is where we came from…

A History of LGBTQ+ People in the Veterinary Profession

PrideVMC has a long and storied 40+ years of history. It grew out of the gay liberation events following Stonewall in 1977.

In the year 1977, eight years following the world-renowned Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York several gay veterinarians met at a dinner party during the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convention in Atlanta. Did they ponder how many other veterinarians, like themselves, were out there? To discover the answer, Drs. Jeffery Collins and Herman Westmoreland courageously placed an ad in The Advocate, the national gay magazine, announcing the first gathering of the Association for Gay Veterinarians (AG Vets) to be held in Las Vegas during the 1978 AVMA convention.

In addition to several genuine inquiries about the inaugural gathering of gay veterinarians, there was also a discrete phone call from a veterinarian asking, “Who were the degenerates who placed this immoral advertisement in that magazine?!!” Despite the rude phone call, the meeting in Las Vegas was a success and AG Vets began hosting regular socials at the annual AVMA conventions.

Throughout the next decade, AG Vets became a regular, informal group of gay veterinarians taking up space and gaining recognition in a predominantly heterosexual, cisgender, male-dominated, conservative profession. Growth came to the organization via mutual contacts, word-of-mouth and chance meetings at the AVMA Conventions. At the time of the founding, women were still a small minority in the profession and lesbians were a minority within a minority and thus, unfortunately, completely unrepresented in AG Vets.

Women veterinarians, including lesbians, did find a home in the Women’s Veterinary Medical Association founded in 1947 and recreated as the Association for Women Veterinarians Foundation (AWVF) in 2005. A major objective of this organization was to further the advancement of women veterinarians in the science of veterinary medicine by bringing women together to share knowledge, support, and friendship. Similar to the goals of AG Vets, AWVF sought to bring together a minority (today women make up a majority of the veterinary medical profession, but in 1947 there were only 500 women veterinarians) within the profession to foster community.

Generally speaking, veterinary schools are located at agricultural land-grant colleges and perhaps consequently are conservative and range from unfriendly to hostile towards difference and diversity. It is not surprising then, that the urban, Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine became the home for the first LGBT veterinary medical student network. Penn veterinary medical student Donald Stremme and faculty member Dr. Colin Johnstone were early pioneers in veterinary academia and education. During the 1980s, flyers posted by Stremme announcing gay events for student networking were routinely torn down, however, this–albeit minimal–visibility played an important role in the development of these early networks.

In the year 1981, the AIDS pandemic was identified. The pandemic would later turn out to be one of the greatest humanitarian crises and wreak havoc on the LGBTQIA community at large but in particular gay men. The fledgling veterinary network and gay community developed by AG Vets would not be able to flee its destruction; many founding members would succumb to AIDS, while others would go back into the closet to escape professional fears and the social stigma associated with them due to this pandemic. At a time when HIV was poorly understood and a source of discrimination, gay veterinarians, like gay men everywhere, were afraid of assumptions concerning their HIV status and social stigma. At its peak, AG Vets boasted 35 members, but due to the pandemic and the consequent decline in membership, AG Vets disbanded after meeting for the last time in 1988 at the AVMA Convention in Portland, Oregon.

The same pandemic that forced the premature closure of AG Vets brought a new generation of LGBTQIA veterinarians together when it came to advocating for their clients with AIDS. Organizations like Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) in San Francisco and PETS DC in Washington DC, as well as other similar groups in other cities, had strong LGBT veterinary leadership. Many of these early veterinary community organizers met each other at DELTA Society conferences (renamed Pet Partners in 2012). The Delta Society, co-founded by veterinarian Dr. Leo Bustad in 1977, became one of the world’s oldest and largest human-animal interaction organizations and hosted the first panel discussion on Pets and AIDS in Orlando in 1988. This pioneering One Health panel highlighted the importance of animal companionship for human health and discussed how to minimize the unknown risks of pet-associated zoonoses for immunosuppressed populations. LGBTQIA veterinarians and their allies found that the AIDS pandemic proved to be a necessary theme and purpose to advocate around. Nearly two decades later, Tuft’s veterinary medical student Stephanie Wong, with the mentorship of LGVMA and PAWS, would inspire the Center for Disease Control to include a section on their public website about the health benefits of animal companionship and how to reduce pet-associated zoonoses for immunosuppressed people- CDC Healthy Pets.

In 1991, two San Francisco-based veterinarians, Diana Phillips and Ken Gorczyca, realized that a critical network and new generation of LGBTQIA veterinarians had emerged during the first decade of the AIDS pandemic. They started organizing under the acronym I’M GLAD (International Membership of Gay and Lesbian Animal Doctors). Together, Diana and Ken put together an informational newsletter, Good News! and built an updated mailing list from the remaining AG Vet members and the new generation of LGBTQIA veterinarians and veterinary medical students. They modeled their association after the San Francisco-based LGBTQIA physician group- Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights (BAPHR) which eventually gave birth to the National Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA). On World AIDS Day in 1991, the Journal of the AVMA (JAVMA) finally published a feature series on the AIDS pandemic and veterinary medicine – ten years after the identification of the AIDS pandemic. These articles summarized the advocacy work that the LGBTQIA veterinary community had started five years prior, and the overall importance of veterinary medicine in the development of animal models, treatment regimes, pet-associated zoonoses risk control messages and preventative actions for people with AIDS/HIV.

I’M GLAD received a morale boost when several Washington DC members organized a reception at the 1993 March on Washington for Gay Rights. For the first time, dozens of LGBT veterinarians were able to meet each other and create friendships and professional networks. Several months later, I’M GLAD organized a successful meeting at the AVMA convention in Minneapolis, which became the first of many Annual Meetings. It was at this point that the name of the organization was changed from I’M GLAD to the Lesbian and Gay Veterinary Medical Association (LGVMA). During the 1990s, Australia also formed its own association called Gay and Lesbian Veterinary Association (GALVA) modeled after LGVMA. Shortly after the adoption of its new name, bylaws and a constitution were written, a board of directors formed and Washington DC-based Dr. Michael McElvaine was elected the founding President. He would serve as the leader of the association for many years, and hold several terms as President between 1993 and 2007.

During these early years, the LGVMA started sponsoring veterinary student scholarships, continued advocating for their clients with AIDS, and began to host annual meetings at the AVMA convention. Membership rose to 250 in the late 1990s before starting to wane in the new century. Several veterinary medical colleges started their own student chapters, including Cornell, Davis and Penn State. Dr. Albert Koltveit, the JAVMA editor during these years, began regularly publishing the LGVMA Annual Meeting Reports and group photos, however, JAVMA also published a series of angry letters from veterinarians unwilling to accept the presence of LGBT people or LGVMA in the profession.

In 2007, thirty years after the founding of AG Vets, Dr. McElvaine was invited to speak at the AVMA Diversity Symposium as an openly gay man to introduce the LGBT community to the veterinary profession. At the same conference, LGVMA featured their first keynote lecture with Dr. Joan Roughgarden speaking on Sexual Diversity in the Animal Kingdom. Since then, there has been much positive growth and movement within the veterinary medical profession and society around cultural competency, inclusion, and acceptance of LGBTQIA people. LGBTQIA and allied veterinary medical students have continued to lead student chapters and clubs at most veterinary school campuses across the nation.

In 2009, LGVMA elected the first Canadian President, Dr. Wayne Hollingshead, who started hosting info-booths at national veterinary conferences and was invited to participate in the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC) (LGVMA NAVMEC Report.) In 2010, the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) featured their first keynote lecture on LGBT people in veterinary education with Shane Snowdon, founding director of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine LGBT Center. One week later, at the U.C. Davis SAVMA Symposium, veterinary medical students in attendance at the AAVMC lecture, founded Broad Spectrum Veterinary Student Association (BSVSA). BSVSA’s mission is to connect, support and empower community for LGBTQIA students and allies across veterinary education. This veterinary student-run network now hosts a blog and regular meetings at SAVMA Symposium. The 2011 AAVMC and AVMA veterinary student cultural competency survey of veterinary medical students revealed that 7% of veterinary students self-identified as LGBTQIA – twice the national average of U.S. adults. The closet door was finally opened forever in the veterinary medical profession.

In 2013, LGVMA celebrated the 20th Anniversary of its founding. To date, LGVMA has nearly 200 members and BSVSA boasts another 100 student members. Veterinary medical students now have chapters and clubs at most North American veterinary colleges, reflecting a new generation and support of LGBT people. AVMC President, Tuft’s Dean Dr. Deborah Kochevar, including other leaders, attended the 20th Annual LGVMA keynote lecture in Chicago. Roosevelt University’s President Charles Middleton spoke about his personal story as the first ‘out’ university president and the importance and need for organizations like LGVMA and BSVSA in the veterinary medical profession.

As the veterinary profession now moves into alignment with society-at-large, LGVMA, too, is evolving. We strive to promote inclusion and community in the veterinary profession for our colleagues, our clients and our community as a whole. Holding true to this model of inclusivity, in 2018 we changed our organization’s name to Pride Veterinary Medical Community (PrideVMC) in order to provide an umbrella to the various sexualities, gender presentations and gender identities present in our wonderful community. And while our name has had various iterations over the years, what holds true is our vision: one in which everyone in our profession and beyond can live to their full potential, both personally and professionally, conduct their lives openly and with integrity, and freely share their experience and wisdom for the betterment of and care for ourselves, our profession, our clients and all animals.

We continue to strive to be as inclusive as possible by welcoming the entire rainbow as well as our allies.

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