Celebrating pride at {my}dentist

June is Pride Month which is dedicated to celebrating the LGBTQ+ communities all around the world. At {my}dentist, we want to share the personal stories of some of our senior clinicians and operational team about coming out and the importance of being proud of who they are. The colleagues who share their stories also hope in their confidence to speak out that they will inspire or help others.

Our third and final story is told by Clinical Support Manager, Mark Bloor…

“I trained as a Dentist in the early 1980s, just as the AIDS pandemic was becoming recognised and at that time it was considered a disease of homosexuals. Whilst I was at university, I was very closeted, as anti-gay feelings were on the rise. Due to the emerging pandemic, the views within dentistry regarding treating patients with the condition raged.

One member of staff expressed the view that, their “life expectancy was so short” following diagnosis and the risk so high to the treating dentist that essentially we should “just not bother” as the disease would “get them before the caries did.”

Another said, “you know what AIDS stands for don’t you? Arse Injected Death Syndrome,” which was interesting as I found out some years later that the particular staff member had certain “leanings”. I think in hindsight it was just a way to obscure conjecture and with good reason and I certainly couldn’t judge as I was guilty of the same.

So, after qualifying and working in the hospital, I returned to the area I had been brought up in and became an associate. I still figured it was better to keep my sexuality to myself though I did get involved with a number of AIDS benefits which went under the name “20th Century Frox.” They were drag shows that sought to recreate on stage the lavish musicals from the 1940s to the early 1960s along with a few other gay icons. The largest of these shows in 1985 raised many thousands of pounds for the early AIDS charities and was attended by many people, gay and straight and even included my mother. I managed to justify my involvement from a technical standpoint as a supplier of an outside broadcast truck.

In 1986 I bought my first practice with a fellow I was at university with and we set about increasing the capacity of the practice and patient numbers, and although I tried to be “normal” it was clearly apparent to the girls that I did go out with the “spark wasn’t there.” I had plenty to keep me occupied: expanding the practice and opening a squat practice. Maybe this was a diversion to keep me busy, maybe being busy was a good excuse.

As things settled down professionally in towards the end of the 80s, the increasing numbers of AIDs patients where finding it incredibly difficult to receive any form of routine care. Suggestions that they should be treated at the end of a session (before universal precautions) was widespread but the reality is nearly all patients who admitted to their GDPs they had an HIV diagnosis found they could not access continuing routine care. I found myself increasingly seeing these patients after hours, had I seen them during regular surgery hours it would have likely been professional, or rather financial suicide.

The public perception was driven by scaremongering but the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign put the fear of god into many, but at least it was an attempt by the government to do something about the problem. Many at the time either didn’t or didn’t want to understand the issue and in any event it only affected gay men so….. so what?

This disdain and fear was to become even more acute when a Florida Dentist called David Acer hit the news. Patients already convinced they could catch HIV at the dentist now had the proof. A patient of Acer had removed two wisdom teeth in December 1987, with Acer having been confirmed as HIV+ in the Autumn of the same year. In March 1989, the patient was showing signs of HIV infection and by January 1990 had a full-blown AIDS diagnosis, with the CDC confirming that the infection had indeed come from Acer. Patients were now absolutely convinced going to the dentist would result in an HIV infection. I once again decided it was better to remain tight lipped and dodge the inevitable questions about wife and children.

To add to my concerns, in 1988 the government introduced the now infamous, clause 28 which effectively outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality”. The problem was it was poorly drafted and wide in its application and did very little to encourage me to “come out”. This legislation remained in place until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales.

Positive patients were finding accessing routine dental care nigh on impossible and there was always an excuse by their GDPs to refer them on. I became involved with seeing patients from an AIDS charity (always of course outside surgery hours) for routine care and I also offered hypnotherapy sessions. The charity was offered a building from the Roman Catholic church to accommodate the aspirations of the charity to provide an inclusive caring environment. I became the ‘official’ un-official dentist.

Of course, the game changer were the antivirals but even initially they were fraught with difficulties and complications to the point that some found the side effects difficult or were so concerned by the possible complications they avoided taking them. Early on, patients had to travel to London from the south coast to receive care. A good friend of mine who had developed Kaposi Sarcoma eventually succumbed to the disease, though the drugs afforded him an additional 20 years of life. But I can still remember the day he told me he was positive I just cried, for at that time it was a death sentence.

In the midst of all this I started seeing a nurse who was associated with the charity, that was over 27 years ago and we’ve been together ever since. Indeed our relationship has lasted longer than many marriages. I have been asked how we have remained together for so long: separate bathroom and bank accounts!

A few years after we got together, we moved to the New Forest and whilst we were certainly not out and proud, you would have had to be blind to see we were not a couple. In all the time we have been in the New Forest, without exception the locals have been accepting of us and very warm to us. Indeed, we invited a number of our close friends to our civil partnership in 2005. I believe it was the civil partnership act and the associated measure that lead to a much more enlightened outlook. Many of our friends became patients of mine, showing significant trust in me as a gay dentist well before the GDC and NHS did. Indeed, it was mandated around that time that all new qualified dentists would have mandatory HIV tests before being enrolled on the register. The Department of Health (and GDC having to follow suit) view remained that any HIV positive dentist would effectively have to clear their desks and stop practising. This view remained in place until January 2014, when HIV positive dentists were allowed to practise under certain conditions.

Thankfully, HIV infected individuals in this country, with modern medication and care is such that, in essence, they may expect a normal life expectancy a stark contrast to the case when I qualified some 37 years ago.

I am proud that I never turned my back on HIV positive patients and treated them throughout my career. There is no doubt being so closeted and, in my mind, having to be so careful about inadvertently disclosing you were gay added significantly to what is already a stressful profession.

Do I blame anyone? Well, I certainly wouldn’t blame patients for being scared, particularly early in the pandemic. However I believe it to be a fact that no professional in their right mind would purposefully expose patients to risk of infection. I am however glad that much, but certainly not all, of the stigma of being gay has now evaporated but make no mistake, it is still there in some quarters, but as with all intolerance people need to be enlightened and shown we are not to be feared”

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