Bobby Kelly: Closing the LGBT health-care gap


I remember reading stories where emergency medical-technician workers would practically put on HAZMAT suits any time they encountered someone they thought was gay, just in case that person had AIDS.

Thankfully, that’s mostly a thing of the past, but there is still a ways to go when it comes to the medical health and well-being of LGBT people. This weekend, a number of organizations are collaborating to host the second annual LGBT Health Student Symposium to educate future health providers about the specific needs and concerns of LGBT patients. The symposium is being organized by Drexel University M.D. candidate Bobby Kelly. He’s a past recipient of the Jonathan Lax Scholarship, a grant program created to honor the memory of the late, openly gay entrepreneur who was a pioneering HIV/AIDS activist in Philadelphia.

PGN: With a name like Bobby Kelly, it sounds like you should be from the South. BK: [Laughs.] I know, people always want to hyphenate my name: Bobby-Kelly. I was actually born in Queens, but we moved to Long Island when I was little. I still have family up there. I came to Philly because I got a scholarship to go to St. Joe’s for college and then stayed to go to grad school at University of Penn. I also worked as a math and science teacher for two years. Now we’ve set up shop in South Philadelphia.

PGN: Set up shop? BK: My husband and I bought a house four years ago. One of the quirky things I like about Philadelphia are all the different neighborhoods. I spent some time moving around to try out different parts of the city and we liked it here best.

PGN: Are you an only child? BK: I’m one of four children: I have two sisters and a brother. I’m in the middle as well, as much as you can be with four kids.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? Was Operation your favorite game? BK: [Laughs.] Close. We never had that game, but my mother said I loved to take things apart and put them back together. My sister joked that I would tie her socks into tight knots and see if she could figure out how to untie them. My siblings would tease me about wanting to go into the medical profession because I was kind of squeamish about different things. My mom was supportive but she would say, “How are you going to be a doctor when you don’t even like to touch dirty laundry?” I think I wanted to be a pediatrician, because I was one of the few kids who liked going to my doctor. He was a nice guy and had a cool office. PGN: Other than dirty clothes, what else made you squeamish? BK: We had to do a dissection lab in high school, which was pretty nasty. It wasn’t so much the dissecting part that got to me but the smell. One girl who didn’t want to participate decided that she would help by spraying the classroom with a Bath and Body perfume. The noxious combination of the sweet perfume and formaldehyde was pretty stomach-wrenching.

PGN: Did you go to med school? BK: Not right away: I went to undergrad to study math and went into teaching for a while.

PGN: What made you go into math first? BK: Well, I got into St. Joe’s and didn’t realize that you had to declare your major first before you attended; I thought you could take some general classes and then decide. I was still finishing high school and, in typical dramatic teenager fashion, I thought that whatever I picked, I’d be stuck with as a profession for the rest of my life. I knew I was good at math and figured at the least I’d get good grades. Though I learned as you got more into math, it was less about numbers and more theoretical work, which I enjoyed. It also gave me time to do other things: I worked in the writing center as a writing coach, I started a poetry group, I did theater, I took philosophy courses and other things. It allowed me to be more than a typical math … dude.

PGN: [Laughs.] You almost said “geek …” BK: [Chuckles.] Yeah, well, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but yes, most math majors were a little bit odd. They were interesting and fun to work with, but I just didn’t really fit into that group. I went to Penn for grad school in elementary education and did a yearlong elementary master’s program where you can get certified to teach. I was a student math teacher for sixth-graders at a school in West Philadelphia. I’d planned on giving it five years to make sure I liked it. Unfortunately, to make a long story short, applications were lost, paperwork got rerouted and I got assigned to a pretty posh school in the suburbs. Everyone kept telling me how lucky I was, but it was not what I had intended. I wanted to be in an area where there was a real need. I liked working with kids but decided to do it from a different angle. About three years ago, I went back to school to study medicine with the hopes of working with underserved kids.

PGN: When you taught in West Philly, what struck you most? BK: How many kids really yearned to have a positive male role model in their lives. The fact that I would sit down and listen to them meant a lot for them, whether it was talking about math problems or social problems or difficulties at home.

PGN: If things go on schedule, when do you graduate? BK: Our commencement is in May 2012 and then I’ll start my residency training. I want to work in adolescent medicine.

PGN: And I understand that you’re one of the class presidents. BK: Yes, since we’re such a large school, we have three. I like being involved in student government. I’m also the [American Medical Student Association] Gender and Sexuality Committee grassroots coordinator and was the former co-president of the LGBT People in Medicine student group. Right now I’m working with LASOH [LGBTQ Alliance of Students Organized for Health], who is one of the sponsors of the symposium this weekend.

PGN: Tell me a little about the symposium. BK: This is the second annual event: Last year it was held in Boston. We are going to have students and health professionals from across the country gathering for a weekend of workshops and presentations focused on the future of LGBT health. It’s important to educate not only LGBT people, but all future health-care providers about issues and dialect that are specific to the LGBT community.

PGN: I remember, years ago, going to a new doctor and she asked me if I was sexually active. I replied yes, then she asked me if I was using birth control and I said no. Then she asked if I was trying to get pregnant and I said no. I think she might have even asked if there was a religious reason that I wasn’t using birth control, but I’m an agnostic. I could tell she was getting frustrated. When I said that I was gay, she said, “Oh thank God, I thought I was going to have to explain the birds and the bees to you!” I was having fun with her but I can see how there is a need to teach providers to think out of the box. If I’d been in the closet, she would have been left trying to figure it out on her own. BK: Yes, the CDC wrote: “There is a need for culturally competent medical care and prevention services that are specific to this population. Social inequality is often associated with poorer health status, and sexual orientation has been associated with multiple health threats. [Many studies have shown that] members of the LGBT community are at increased risk for a number of health threats when compared to their heterosexual peers, …[often] associated with social and structural inequities, such as the stigma and discrimination that LGBT populations experience.” Hopefully this symposium will help correct some of those problems by bringing awareness and information to people going into the health-care fields.

PGN: What are some issues that are different for the LGBT community? BK: There are overall health disparities that are pretty well documented: cancer, mental health, tobacco use, preventative care. A lot of it has to do with lack of access to health.

PGN: Switching up a little, what’s your favorite medical TV show? BK: “House.” I try not to be a medical student watching it, but on occasion, during commercial breaks, I can’t help but trying to figure out a diagnosis from the things I learned in school.

PGN: In college, what was the food you survived on? BK: Well, as a future doctor, I advise against it, but I have to say I indulged in the unlimited supply of Lucky Charms in the school cafeteria. I guess it’s not too bad if you pick out the marshmallows!

PGN: What are the most consecutive hours you’ve studied for a test? BK: I try not to cram, because it’s not good for the brain. I guess 10-12 hours straight for a few weeks before the big board exams.

PGN: When did you have your “aha” moment that you were gay? BK: I was very young when I realized that where most of the other boys were into girls; I liked them as friends, but there was no chemistry or desire there. Then I was aware of my attraction to guys, I don’t know if it was watching Saturday morning wrestling or what, but I realized I liked guys. Having no role models around me to help me understand what was going on, I kind of stuck to myself and was basically asexual until I got to college.

PGN: So you went from being asexual to having a husband? BK: Yeah, a lot happened since college! I went through a real transformation. I met Robin singing with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus. He’s very active in the arts community.

PGN: Tell me about the marriage. BK: We had a ceremony and reception here in Philly in 2008. His family is from New Hampshire and mine is from New York but we decided to do it in Philadelphia since a lot of our friends were here. Since Pennsylvania doesn’t have same-sex marriage, in 2010 we went up to New Hampshire and made it legal.

PGN: Any hobbies? BK: I like to sing and play the piano and Robin and I like to travel. We also love food: Robin bakes and I cook. My 93- and 94-year-old grandparents are still around and they give me old Italian recipes to try out.

PGN: What was a favorite thing to do with your siblings? BK: My younger sister and I would fool around with a tape recorder and pretend to be radio talk-show hosts. “OK, welcome to ‘The Bob and Brianna Show!’” We’d make up songs and record them as well. My older sister and I would play Dr. Mario on the Nintendo set. It was like Tetris, but instead of bricks they had pills and you had to drop the pills on the same color virus as the pill. If you eliminated all the viruses, you moved on to the next level. So though I didn’t have Operation, I had Dr. Mario!

PGN: What did your parents do? BK: My dad is a physical therapist. My mom stayed at home and took care of us, the house, everything. I always called her Supermom.

PGN: If you could bring a fictional character to life, whom would you choose? BK: The first person that pops to mind is Willy Wonka: He seems like a cool complex creative character.

PGN: If you were on “Dancing with the Stars,” whom would you want as a partner? BK: I was just watching “The Cosby Show” with Phylicia Rashad, who plays Mrs. Huxtable. Her sister is the dancer Debbie Allen, so maybe Debbie. Or would I want to make a statement by picking a male partner?

PGN: A sport you enjoy? BK: Robin is the managing director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. Recently, I’ve been taking classes in aerial and trapeze work and it’s really fun. They have classes in all the circus arts, from juggling to Chinese acrobatics to trapeze. Robin has a background in physical theater, which is kind of like Cirque du Soleil stuff, but not exactly.

PGN: Do you speak a second language? BK: I studied Latin, so I can understand a lot, but nothing fluently. It does help with medical terms.

PGN: Did you pass or fail your driver’s test? BK: In New York for a brief period of time, they shortened the test to five questions and I almost failed. I only got three out of five. They’ve since changed it back to the full 20 questions.

PGN: Favorite non-sexual body part? BK: I’d say the eyes [laughs] but I have a deep respect for the liver! It’s an amazing organ. n

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