‘You can be successful and be gay’ – a hygienist’s experience in dentistry as a gay woman

As we mark Pride Month this June, Anna Peterson opens up about her journey as a gay woman within dentistry and her mission to show people that you can be gay and be successful

As we mark Pride Month this June, Anna Peterson opens up about her journey as a gay woman within dentistry and her mission to show people that you can be gay and be successful.

How did you get into dental hygiene and therapy?

From the age of around five I’ve wanted to work in dentistry and I wanted to be a dentist. I used to make my own braces out of the metal wires that held toys in boxes and I had told everyone in my year at school that I wanted to be a dentist.

Fast forward to the end of secondary school, my passion for dentistry had not faltered. I had a place at Teesside University but, unfortunately, when results day came around, I didn’t meet the required grades. I became a dental nurse and I went to the University  of Portsmouth to do this. It was at this university that I fell in love with dentistry. I was working alongside dental therapists and I knew this is what I wanted to do.

I then reapplied the following year and secured a place at Teesside University where I completed my degree and achieved first class honours.

What was the support like for the LGBTQ+ community at dental school?

At both of the universities that I went to, I kept my sexuality a secret. This wasn’t because I had heard anything discriminating or negative towards gay people. In fact, I knew of other gay students on my course that were out, but they were male.

All of my lecturers and supervisors were female and I just didn’t feel comfortable to tell them. I worried that it would make them feel uncomfortable or awkward around me and potentially mark me down or be harder on me with marking/grading me on my clinical skills.
Looking back now, it seems awful as they were all lovely supervisors and lecturers.

It wasn’t their fault I felt like that, but it was a battle that I had. I almost felt like they didn’t really know me. I would hear other students talking to the lecturers about their life and their family, and felt sad that I couldn’t bond with them on that level.

Do you feel that dentistry is an inclusive profession?

I would like to say yes, however I struggle with this question. When I think about how many LGBTQ+ people there are in dentistry or dental schools, it is a small number.

I know that the GDC does ask about our sexual preferences in the equality and diversity section when we are filling out our forms. However, this is the only time I have noticed recognition for LGBTQ+ in dentistry.

Have you ever had any negative experiences from colleagues or patients?

I tend to not tell my patients about my sexuality, for the same reason I didn’t tell my university lecturers or clinical supervisors. I worry that they would see me differently or no longer want to be treated by me. It probably is all in my head.

Sometimes patients ask if I have ‘a man in my life’ or ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ The assumption that I am straight is quite apparent, especially treating older patients who I’m not sure would understand. I usually have so much to discuss with the patients regarding oral hygiene instructions or treatment that talking about other things is usually just asking them about their family or holidays coming up. So I don’t often get asked anything that personal, which I’m quite glad about.

I do remember the first and only patient I ever opened up to. He was a lovely man, really kind and warm. He really took interest in you and made you feel important. He’d talk about his wife and how much he loved her, and would talk about his job and how no one would talk to the CEO of the company he worked at. Everyone thought the CEO was miserable until one day when my patient asked him about his life and if he was married, from that moment the CEO completely changed and they ended up being very good friends.

He then turned to me and said, ‘so do you have a boyfriend?’ I completely panicked and said, ‘yes’. He then asked me what my boyfriend did. I just said ‘they work for…’ He then asked more and more questions.

He left the appointment and went out to our reception desk where his wife was. As I walked past he said ‘tell my wife what your boyfriend does’ – my receptionist looked at me with a very puzzled expression. I had gone bright red and again, just used gender neutral pronouns. I felt myself getting further and further into this hole and just wanted it to be over.

Completely panicked

As soon as he left the room, I burst into tears. My nurse asked me why I was so upset. I think it was partly because I had lied to him, but also because I realised I was still so far away from being okay with who I was. The patient came back six months later and he again asked me about my boyfriend. I took a second and then said ‘it’s actually a girlfriend’.

The patient went ‘oh okay’ and carried on talking. He didn’t even bat an eyelid, he didn’t care, I had completely panicked and worried and upset myself in his last appointment for absolutely no reason. The problem is you just never know how someone will react.

At the practice I currently work in, all the staff know that I am gay. They are all really supportive and inclusive. When my relationship with my ex ended, the staff were lovely to me, including my boss, who I felt I could open up to. In fact by doing so, I think it made us closer and I am glad I did. My boss is the principal dentist and he is the only man in a building full of women.

At my previous practice only a handful of staff knew. It was my first practice since qualifying so I was still finding my feet really. But it also didn’t help that the practice was a converted chapel. I felt if they knew about my sexuality they would think I was a bad omen in the building! Again, so silly but it is what I felt.

What do you think can be done to elevate diversity and inclusivity in dentistry?

I wish when I was at university there was more representation within the clinical staff or lecturers. I was out to all of my friends at university and Teesside University as a whole was brilliant for LGBTQ+ support within the sport societies. For example, I was part of the football and rugby team that had lots of LGBTQ+ members and that really helped me.

I think teaching about equality in dentistry is important for so many reasons. How we treat patients, understand patients, not discriminating patients…I’m surprised we didn’t discuss LGBTQ+.
I just hope that if any other student is in the position that I was, they feel comfortable enough to be proud of who they are and tell people, if they want to. It’s one of the reasons I show people on Tiktok that I am gay by the rainbow flag in my bio. I want others to know that you can be successful in your career and be gay.

I feel the proportion of female to male hygienists is quite female heavy. Yet I don’t come across that many other gay females in the industry. But I remember the first time I saw someone post in the Facebook dental hygiene therapy group that they were newly married. The pictures were of her and her wife and there were so many lovely positive comments on the post from members of the hygiene therapy group. It made me so happy and relieved to see it.

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