Behind the (Hospital Room) Curtain: Injustice in the Medical Field

To some, a doctor’s appointment may be nothing more than a routine visit, while for some others the hospital may act as their second home. When Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer, she began spending more time in the hospital, being examined, tested, going through chemotherapy, and what Lorde does best of all – writing. From her experiences behind the hospital room curtain, Lorde wrote The Cancer Journals, a collection of diary entries narrating her struggles with breast cancer, including the racism, sexism, and homophobia she experienced during these visits. As a strong advocate for justice and equality, Lorde realized that even in the medical field, racism, sexism, and homophobia/heterosexism were evident. In this blog post, I will describe some of the instances of racism, sexism, and homophobia Lorde experienced and suggest the ways that these discriminatory practices continue to this day.

Throughout her life, Lorde identified herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, and encouraged others, especially those in minority groups, to identify themselves and take pride in each identity, regardless of the discrimination from others. Lorde understood that being an advocate did not stop at supporting those who were being repressed; she also used her voice to teach others how to be more accepting and understanding. These messages were clear in everything Lorde did, from her written work like Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Sister Outsider, and The Cancer Journals, as well as how she brought those messages with her wherever she went, from NYC to Berlin, Germany.

While in the hospital, Lorde was repeatedly neglected and ridiculed by doctors and nurses, an experience that could likely be attributed to racism. In part two of The Cancer Journals, “Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience”, Lorde writes about the lack of quality in post-operation care that she received. While in her recovery room, Lorde recalls waking up after the biopsy, “colder than I can remember ever having been in my life”, and further on states “all I could focus upon was getting out of that room and getting warm. I yelled and screamed and complained about the cold and begged for extra blankets, but none came” (27). While there is no way to fully know, it could be inferred that racism may play a role into the lack of care and attention Lorde got as a patient, though she was told that the hospital simply “had no spare blankets” (28).

Racial and ethnic minority groups have dealt with and continue to deal with the effects of discrimination regardless of where they go, including in the medical field. In “The spectrum of ‘new racism’ and discrimination in hospital contexts: A reappraisal,” Doctors Megan-Jane Johnstone and Olga Kanitsaki write “the problem of racism needs to be unmasked and managed so that those most at risk of being discriminated against on racialised grounds can rest assured that when in need, they will receive the equitable, safe and quality care they are entitled to receive” (Johnstone and Kanitsaki, 2009). While many doctors including Johnstone and Kanitsaki are on the same page as Lorde, there are a vast amount of medical staff that are not. Monique Tello, MD, MPH, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, recounts a story from a patient of hers in the article “Racism and discrimination in health care: Providers and patients”. Tello writes “A patient of mine recently shared a story about her visit to an area emergency room a few years ago. She had a painful medical condition. The emergency room staff did not treat her pain. She is convinced that she was treated poorly by that emergency room because she was black” (Tello, 2017). Tello’s patient was denied treatment, and staff treated her as if she was “just trying to get pain meds out of them”, though “there was nothing in her history to suggest that she was pain medication seeking” (Tello, 2017). This is an example of racial profiling, as Tello’s patient, as well as so many other black people, if not all, experience daily, in and out of the emergency room. Both Lorde and Tello’s patient experienced lack of care and blatant ignorance from the staff at their individual hospitals, nearly 40 years apart. While Lorde focuses on her need to survive, rather than being a victim, the hospital staff makes that goal difficult to achieve, as they ignored her and continue to ignore patients in minority groups in present time.

Sexism in healthcare is a prominent issue, but is also normalized and practiced regularly. Throughout The Cancer Journals, Lorde emphasizes the expectations that the medical industry and society place on women and their bodies. After going through a mastectomy, to remove a body part that seems to hold high value in patriarchal society, the focus was not on Lorde’s comfortability and recovery. Instead, she is encouraged to wear a prosthetic breast. When Lorde refused to wear a prosthesis, she is questioned and ridiculed. Lorde writes in the final part of The Cancer Journals, “Breast Cancer: Power vs Prosthesis”, about visits she had with a woman from Reach for Recovery, an organization still around that helps women cope with their breast cancer, and a nurse after her operation. Lorde was first introduced to a lambswool prosthesis during a meeting with a woman from Reach for Recovery, who brought it for her, as well as a soft sleep-bra. She insisted “You’ll never know the difference!”, though Lorde states “I knew sure as hell I’d know the difference” (42). The more important issue seemed to be if it would feel comfortable during intimate times with a partner, and how it would look to them, than how it would feel to Lorde. Later, on a day that Lorde was feeling pleased with herself, a feeling that she did not express during her treatments and operations, her mood quickly changed as the focus shifted to the topic of why Lorde was not wearing her prosthesis. Lorde leans into this idea that breast prostheses are truly for cosmetic purposes only, as they do not have a function aside from making a woman look “normal”. Lorde writes, “in other amputations and with other prosthetic devices, function is the main point of their existence. Artificial limbs perform specific tasks, allowing us to manipulate or to walk. Dentures allow us to chew our food. Only false breasts are designed for appearance only, as if the only real function of women’s breasts were to appear in a certain shape and size and symmetry to onlookers, or to yield to external pressure” (64). While Lorde does not judge or ridicule women for their choices about their bodies, never shaming a woman for choosing to wear a prosthetic breast, she personally chose not to, though encouraged relentlessly. While many doctors do aim for ultimate comfort for their patients, and support those choices, that was not the experience that Lorde and so many other women experience. From a patriarchal perspective, women’s bodies are made to be looked at, while beauty is appreciated only if it fits certain guidelines; if not, society gets uncomfortable and puts their attention on what would make them more comfortable than the woman herself. Regardless of Lorde feeling uncomfortable with the lambs wool she was given, the idea that she could be “the same” as before surgery was pushed on her. While other people wanted Lorde to wear a prosthetic for their comfort and personal viewing, she was more comfortable without one.

Sexism continues to be a problem today, as women are still encouraged to wear breast prostheses after having a breast removed, as well as the conversations around topics such as birth control and pregnancy. The ongoing debate of “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” is such a popular discussion topic that it has split our world in half, though ultimately whether a woman chooses to complete a full pregnancy term is completely up to the woman, as it is her body. The conversation around birth control and whether men or women should be responsible for using that form of contraceptive is another popular topic. Studies from George Washington University go as far to show that in emergency situations, “more women than men are put in life-threatening situations during emergency healthcare treatment. The study found men were more likely than women to receive aspirin, be resuscitated, or be taken to the hospital in ambulances using lights and sirens” (Karlis, 2018). As Nicole Karlis writes, “New research reveals how sexism in healthcare can literally kill women.” It should be one of medical healthcare’s main focus to change how they are treating people, especially those who come seeking professional help.
Lorde’s conversation with the woman from Reach for Recovery also helps introduce homophobia and heterosexism in the medical industry. Much of the focus of the conversation around the breast prosthesis related to how a man would look at Lorde, as well as other women going through mastectomies. Lorde writes “my primary concerns two days after mastectomy were hardly about what man I could capture in the future, whether or not my old boyfriend would still find me attractive enough, and even less about whether my two children would be embarrassed by me around their friends,” and continues by expressing how her true concerns were in regards to her chances of surviving and how to stay healthy (56). Sean Cahill, author of “LGBT Experiences with Health Care”, an article written in 2017, recalls a story from Caitlin Crenshaw. Crenshaw writes about dealing with heterosexual assumptions from healthcare providers a they falsely assumed she was married to a man, and the woman accompanying her was her mother, though in reality the woman was her female partner, only five years older than Crenshaw. There are many instances where people included in the LGBTQ+ community are treated unfairly by those working in medicine; Harvey Makadon, MD discusses these instances in the article “Op-ed: How We Can Address Homophobia at the Doctor’s Office”. Makadon writes about situations where “a doctor or nurse refuses to use a transgender patient’s preferred name, to a reproductive health center declining to provide treatment to a lesbian couple” (Makadon, 2015). It has also been reported that “lesbians and bisexual women are far less likely to receive screenings for cervical cancer”, and “gay men are at least 44 times more likely than the general population to become infected with HIV, and transgender women are also highly vulnerable to HIV infection” (Makadon, 2015). While this report was written five years ago, and improvements have been made, there is still room for improvement.

While Lorde wrote The Cancer Journals to help tell her story and advocate for those who experienced similar situations, she also published it to help others understand, navigate and ultimately work towards overcoming racism, sexism and homophobia in hospitals. She continues through her work to urge people to ask questions, advocate for themselves and their health. The narrative around healthcare is an important one, and we should treat it as such, and help change the conversations to reflect inclusivity and improvement, which we work towards a little bit harder, everyday.

Works Cited

Cahill, Sean, et al. “LGBT Experiences With Health Care.” Health Affairs, 1 Apr. 2017,

Johnstone, Megan-Jane, and Olga Kanitsaki. “The Spectrum of ‘New Racism’ and Discrimination in Hospital Contexts: A Reappraisal.” Collegian, Elsevier, 25 Apr. 2009,

Karlis, Nicole. “New Research Reveals How Sexism in Healthcare Can Literally Kill Women.” Salon,, 15 Dec. 2018,

Makadon, Harvey. “Op-Ed: How We Can Address Homophobia at the Doctor’s Office.” ADVOCATE,, 27 July 2015,

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. Penguin Books, 2020.

Tello, Monique. “Racism and Discrimination in Health Care: Providers and Patients.” Harvard Health Blog, 12 Jan. 2017,

“Virus Mask Coronavirus Disease Outbreak Quarantine.” Pixabay, 4 Apr. 2020,

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